Help Wanted on California’s Working Lands

580 200 Ed Coghlan

(Photo: USDA)

California’s agriculture industry has been called the world’s breadbasket. We generate more money in agriculture than any other state—about $20 billion more in agricultural receipts than the next highest state ranked. We raise livestock and grow about 200 different crops.

Nancy Gutierrez is the California Community Colleges Sector Navigator for Agriculture, Water, and Environmental Technology, one of ten economic sectors the colleges have identified as in particular need for a trained workforce now and in the future.

She visited with us recently to talk about the Ag and Water Sector.

What makes the Agriculture, Water and Environment a critical component of California's economy?

There are two main reasons why this sector is a critical component of California’s economy. First, there are more than 1.2 million jobs involved in the agriculture industry, with $395 billion in economic output in 2015 representing 10 percent of the California economy. California is the largest agriculture state in the country outperforming the second greatest agriculture state by double the economic output. California produces two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts, one third of its vegetables and one fifth of its dairy products. As one of only five Mediterranean climates in the world, California is able to produce abundant amounts of healthy nutrient-rich crops, which much of the world would go without if California no longer had an agriculture industry.

The story of water in California has always been dramatic; but it also shows ingenuity, determination, remarkable engineering achievements, and economic growth. Rain in California typically falls heavily in the northern part of the state and is redirected for use in the population centers of the Bay Area and Southern California and in the San Joaquin Valley. California moves huge quantities of water over vast distances and challenging terrain at enormous costs. This pipeline of water sustains drinking water to millions of Californians and irrigation water to millions of agricultural lands. Over time, our infrastructure has weakened. The failed spillway at Oroville Dam is one example of that. A safe and effective water delivery system is vital to California’s success.

What are employers telling you that they need from the community colleges for workforce development?

Employers need employees who can work in the ag technology space. What’s difficult about this area is that ag tech looks different for different areas of industry. So, the identification of specific skills is still in process, and it could be that specific technical skills will not be the need in ag tech, but the ability to learn technology quickly, adapt, etc. Food Safety is still a big need that continues to grow due to the Food Safety Modernization Act and rulings requiring trainings and certified personnel now at the farm level. Agriculture Business is an area of need because the farm credit system continues to find difficulty locating individuals who understand the industry and the credit system. Agriculture mechanics, equipment technicians, diesel technicians are always an area of need.

What successes are you having with employers already—and how are students benefiting?

Successes that have already happened include the Caterpillar program that has been a partnership between agriculture programs and Caterpillar for a few years. Butte College, Reedley College, Modesto Junior College are all fantastic examples of that partnership.

We have increased our food safety offerings from one college to seven and that number continues to grow. We have a great example at Reedley College of a student who is having their education paid for by Food Safety Net Services (FSNS). This student was an intern for FSNS the previous summer. She was the only Community College intern they took and the only agriculture student. They liked her work ethic so much they hired her on permanently and are paying for her college. They hired her because she had taken food safety courses. This company tests meat products from local processing facilities. We’ve had about seven instructors participate in trainings to be certified to certify students in basic HACCP.

Western Growers has contacted our sector in an effort to shape the ag technology adoption and training in California starting with the Central Valley. They are working with their growers but also with students. They’ve held hackathons, and ag issue events for students. Their goal is to create an ag tech academy that will actually take our students to Australia for a training. That is still a little far off, but Western Growers believe their ag technology employees will come from the Community College System.

In California there is an organization called California Ag Leadership. It is an amazing leadership training program for the ag industry or other individuals who are involved in work related to the ag industry. This semester was the inaugural cohort of a community college-based ag leadership program at West Hills College – Lemoore. Students in the inaugural program were mentored by industry members as they learned about the industry, careers and issues and they gave an issues-based presentation in the Capital as a final project.

We know that early learning opportunities—internships and other real-world experiences—are a priority. How is that effort going?

We have a variety of career, industry, and work-related experiences available for students.

In the Ag sector we have a statewide student organization called Collegiate Ag Leaders. Through this program, we facilitate a statewide career and leadership conference where students learn about the industry, take industry tours, participate in workshops related to career prep, personal growth, and leadership. The conference rotates between four-year universities that offer Bachelor’s Degrees in agriculture and natural resources. Additionally, we hold a student competition through the CAL organization. This competition tests soft skills of students through events like, job interview contest, ag marketing contest, team sales competitions, extemporaneous public speaking, a portfolio competition and several others.

Our Deputy Sector Navigators have worked to help provide students with opportunities by setting up industry tours in their local area for college students. They are working on providing training opportunities to students through industry specific boot camps in enology. That is a future program we hope will occur next year.

Looking forward to the next year, what are the challenges and the opportunities in your sector?

There is a need for more colleges to offer education and training in ag and natural resources. Convincing administration to look into developing a program is a challenge. There will be an increased need to start forestry and natural resources programs as wildfires continue to burden California. The governor’s office and ETP have been partnering with the sector to develop information regarding the current state of workforce in this area, the need, and how to develop programs. Ag Technology will continue to be an opportunity as well as food safety. Cannabis is an area that many colleges have interest in, but I have not heard much from industry regarding that subject, so it is a bit of a challenge.


Agriculture, water and environmental technology will be a featured topic when this year’s annual meeting of the California Economic Summit is held in Fresno on November 7-8.

For a list of all the economic sectors and the Sector Navigators, please click here.


Ed Coghlan

All stories by: Ed Coghlan