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Orchardist John Verbrugge of Wapato, Washington, hired between 15 and 20 students to work during cherry harvest last season and this year hopes to hire more.

The teens may not be as productive as his more experienced traditional work force, but Verbrugge believes it’s important to give young people opportunities to work in agriculture and learn about the industry.

Young people are the future of the industry—whether they are growers’ own children or not, he said. "I would like to encourage the rest of the industry to step up and pay attention to our younger kids because they’re all potential farmers. It’s really good for them to get into it and learn that there are all sorts of things they can do—it’s not just sitting on a tractor spraying. I would like to see more of our industry get involved."

For the past three years, WorkSource, a group of organizations dedicated to addressing Washington State’s employment needs, has been actively recruiting students for summer farm jobs, including orchard and packing-house work, to help address a shortage of agricultural labor.

orchard and packing-house work, to help address a shortage of agricultural labor.

Mike Villegas, supervisor at WorkSource in Yakima, said that last spring WorkSource gave presentations at 11 high schools in central Washington about the summer job opportunities in agriculture. Department of Labor and Industries staff explained the rules and regulations governing teen employment, and growers told students about employers’ expectations.

Hard work

Villegas said employers are frank about what the job entails. "They tell them the true story—it’s not picking daisies. It’s hard work."

About 1,500 students attended the presentations, and between 170 and 180 were hired. They’re usually available for cherry harvest and apple thinning but are back in school before apple harvest is over.

The recruitment process involves an orientation for employers by L&I to make sure they understand what’s involved in employing teens. Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, said that during school vacations, 14- and 15-year-olds are allowed to work up to 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, and 6 days a week. Sixteen and 17-year-olds can work up to 10 hours a day, 50 hours a week, and 6 days a week.

Students 16 and older must be guaranteed minimum wage, even if they work on a piece-rate basis, and students under 16 must make 85 percent of the minimum wage.

Teens are not allowed to work with pesticides or use tall ladders, Gempler said, but are allowed to do most activities involved in normal field work.

"The employer has to understand the regulations and be willing to give these teens a try, and it’s worked out very well for several employers," Villegas added.

WorkSource is continuing what it calls the Youth Employment Outreach Project this year. Villegas said the program could probably recruit as many teens as employers will hire. There are youth who are willing to work and might in the future seek careers in agriculture or agribusiness, he said.

The program can work out well for both the students and employers, he said. Last season, a student in Wapato was making $125 a day picking cherries.

But Verbrugge said not all students are so productive, and many don’t have any previous work experience. "So, it’s going to take time for them to get the experience and start understanding the work ethic rather than having a summer vacation.

"It’s just that lack of experience," he added. "When they’re 16, 17, and 18, they’re not very focused. Their mind wanders, so they’re not just as focused as someone whose life depends on this job."

Togetherness

Villegas said students seem more likely to sign up to work if their friends or siblings do, too, but Verbrugge said it has not worked out well to have friends working side by side.

"When they say they want to work together, that’s a sign we need to separate them," he said. "It’s not that we don’t want them to socially interact, but that’s when it becomes dangerous on the job."

He hired some of the same people the last two seasons and observed that they worked better the second year when they knew what they needed to do.

Verbrugge pays on a piece rate for cherry picking and with his regular workers never needed to make up their earnings to the minimum wage. He has had to make up the students’ earnings because they are less productive, and that’s increased his harvesting costs.

But, he doesn’t just look at the costs of hiring young people, he said.

"I think it’s a good opportunity on both sides—for kids to get experience to see if they like agriculture and also for us to have an opportunity to get those kids involved in agriculture. And I think for society it’s a good thing. If they work all day, they’re going to be too tired to be doing things they shouldn’t be doing."

This year, he plans to hire teens again for cherry harvest, and if he can get more than he did last year, he’ll hire them. Because they tend not to be good pickers, he gives them jobs such as lug dumping and checking tickets. Verbrugge said only a few growers are employing students and he encourages more growers to give it a try. "If more people did this, it would be better for the kids and the industry."

Anyone interested in hiring students can call Villegas at (509) 574-0162 or ­contact their local WorkSource office.