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Delta College offers tailor-made cut produce program

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Posted: Monday, October 6, 2003 10:00 pm

The Pacific Pre-Cut Produce building on Valpico Road now doubles as a college classroom.

San Joaquin Delta College brought the expertise the maturing company needed with a management class, created just for the company and the Spanish-speaking managers who work there.

"I always felt very strongly about giving people within the company a chance to grow and succeed," company President Steffanie Smith said.

The entire cut produce industry is growing so quickly that many companies have tried to bring in expertise from other industries to help manage the growth, Smith said. When Pacific Pre-Cut tried to do the same, she found that nothing exactly fit the company's situation, so she would have had to bring in many different programs to cover all the topics she felt the employees needed.

"Delta tailored the programs to our industry, to our workers and to the skills of our team," she said.

The management class was held at the building in between shifts, to accommodate the schedules of morning and evening workers, and it was taught in Spanish. It started with the basics of conversation and finished with problem solving.

Communication is the base for business, said David Moscovic, the college's training resources consultant. He visited the company to understand its needs, and he found professor Martha Villareal to teach the twice-a-week classes at the Pacific Pre-Cut facility.

"If they are going to continue to grow, they have the foresight that they need to invest in their employees," Moscovic said.

The college is taking a more active role in promoting the possibilities of partnerships between the school and local companies.

"I don't think a lot of people know Delta College can structure a program specifically like this," said Connie Cochran, public information officer for the community college.

Liz Laurel, Pacific Pre-Cut's human resources manager, said there was some worry that the class would be a hard sell, because many workers are more comfortable working in Spanish and may have limited educations. After two classes, everyone attended enthusiastically, she said, and there has been a noticeable change in the demeanor of the managers.

"Not all of us are automatically gifted to know how to motivate our employees," Laurel said. "The class provided them a lot of useful tools."

The majority of the management team is promoted directly from the line, said Tom Wilkens, the company's vice president. That group, by and large, is more comfortable speaking in Spanish, but needs the management training that many other companies provide their employees.

"Because we are very fortunate to be growing at a dramatic pace, we need leaders," Wilkens said.

The management classes send an important message to the employees that they are important to the company, Wilkens said. The company has been growing more than 30 percent per year, he said, and now has more than 300 employees.

Pacific Pre-Cut provides prepared, raw vegetables to delis and grocery stores. Many of these companies want to get knives out of the hands of employees to lower their workers' compensation liability, Wilkens said, and the company is happy to fill the need. To stay competitive, though, they have to be very safe - safer than a kitchen employee - and that's where the management team puts in a lot of its work.

The lines also have to be fast, because the company is shipping a very perishable product. The day is a complex, choreographed movement of fruits and vegetables coming into the warehouse, being doled out to the lines for preparation, and set up to go back out the door. Wilkens said that process involves many different teams that need to work closely and efficiently.

This kind of training is important, Cochran said, but most businesses of Pacific Pre-Cut's size can't afford to have someone on staff all the time to provide the training. Delta made it available, she said.

The next step is to keep the teams' skills up, and provide the classes for the next group of new managers, Smith said.

She said she's thrilled with the class and its outcome for the company.

Wilken said that as a result of the training, the whole staff is calmer, and everyone understands the other teams' jobs better.

"We definitely have efficiency gains because our people communicate better, and they have a better idea of the business," he said.

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