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Dennis Donohue: A New Kind of Worker

By Dennis Donohue
Director at the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology

September 22, 2020 – Salinas, CA

(Photo above: Dennis Donohue is the Director at the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology in Salinas. Contributed.)

As a new academic year gets underway, the phrase “we need a new type of worker” keeps coming to mind. Let me explain.

For the past few years, Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (WGCIT) has work toward accomplishing one goal: the rapid commercialization of innovative solutions that will help farmers across the state (and nation!) grow more food with less resources and inputs. We have about 50 start-up companies currently housed in the Center who are inventing cutting-edge technologies, and I’m incredibly proud of the work and progress they have completed thus far. However, one looming issue poses a challenge to both our startups and the farmers Western Growers represents. The issue? Finding a qualified workforce; a workforce that has the skills and knowledge to masterfully navigate up-and-coming technology on the farm.

Recently, I was visiting one of the farming operations who sponsor the WGCIT and something they said really hit home. “It seems like most of the people we deal with are either in Ag or they are in Tech. It’s almost like we need a new kind of worker,” they said.    

Their comment has stuck with me, particularly as some of our resident startups progress and grow. Though startups may invent the technology and farmers may buy it, somebody has to build it, operate it and service it. Though “on-the-job training” is part of the process to get that new kind of worker, ultimately, education is the key.

What’s encouraging is that academia is starting to discuss AgTech needs from a curriculum standpoint as well as the training necessary for instructors. In particular, the California Community Colleges system is stepping up and the WGCIT is supporting their efforts…..because rapid commercialization also requires a trained work for today and tomorrow.

We are currently working with the California Community Colleges and a leading private university in the Silicon Valley to bring teachers together with technology. We are also supporting the curriculum development efforts of Community Colleges. Additionally, we will be modifying our novel AgTechX Summit to now introduce AgTechX Ed. This special programming will focus on importance of an educated workforce and provide resources on how to guide and develop new graduates for working with tech in agriculture.

Collaboration between academia and industry to help prepare students and support teachers will be a critical component for an AgTech agenda to be successful. Together, we can create “A New Kind of Worker.”

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