The welcome mat is unfurled like a giant fish net and the help wanted sign is in neon.

The California crop protection community is looking not only for a few good men and women to become licensed pest control advisers (PCAs), but also for a big boatload of talented, hard-working young people who want to meet the challenges of producing food and fiber to feed the world in the No. 1 agricultural state in the nation. And they can do it with competitive salaries from companies who are quickly outnumbering viable candidates to fill growing PCA vacancies.

Leaders in the crop/pest management industry say they have been asleep at the wheel for much of the past decade, not nurturing a farm system to bring along replacements for a seasoned corps of PCAs on the brink of retirement.

“The opportunities for crop protection professionals over the next five to 10 years are endless,” said Steve Alexander, vice president of the Western business unit for Helena Chemical Co. in Fresno, Calif.

Alexander is one of the three industry leaders who are spearheading an effort to raise at least $250,000 by the end of October to hire a coordinator and initiate an educational and recruitment effort called Pathway to PCA. The other two leaders are Les Lyman of the the Tremont Group, Woodland, Calif., and Lon Records, president of Target Specialty Products, Santa Fe Springs, Calif., an urban pest management company with offices statewide.

Pathway to PCA will be housed under the Stanley W. Strew Foundation to develop candidates to be eligible to take the PCA license. Offices will be at the California Association of Pest Control Advisers (CAPCA) headquarters in Sacramento.

Pathway to PCA’s goal is to deliver an awareness campaign to students in all educational venues (high schools, and universities) that a career as an agricultural professional is a lucrative and rewarding career.

That career starts first with interest in the profession, followed by a detailed curriculum that will qualify a candidate to take the state-mandated PCA exam to become a licensed adviser.

“There is a lot of interest in this Pathway to PCA program because it is becoming obvious in our own company and in the industry that in the next five to 10 years we will need PCAs to replace the aging group now working in the industry, “ said Lyman.

Terry Stark, president and CEO of CAPCA, said a 2006 survey of the association’s 3,100 members revealed that almost 40 percent of its members are over 55. Only 17 percent are 44 or younger. Thirty-five percent are 45 to 55.

“We need to create a pool of licensed, qualified PCAs for the crop protection industry to move California agriculture into the future,” Lyman emphasized.

Ten years ago when the pest control industry began consolidating, “we let the importance of recruiting new people into the industry get away from us,” said Alexander.

There is no crisis yet, but if we don’t begin soon to bring more people into the industry, we will be in a crisis.”

There are about 4,000 PCAs in California. They work in a variety of settings, and are an irreplaceable cog in the fifth largest agricultural economy in the world.

A PCA uses a variety of technologies to provide recommendations to protect crops and livestock in the state’s $32 billion industry that according to UC Davis accounted for $97.7 billion of the state sales output, 3.8 percent of jobs, 2.5 percent of labor income and $39.6 billion (2.9 percent) of labor and property income and indirect business taxes.

Stark and the association’s leadership have rejuvenated student dinners and other on-campus activities to attract more young men and women to the industry.

“We had a dinner not long ago at Fresno State where we had more people looking to hire PCAs than we had students interesting in being a PCA. The opportunities are huge for a young PCA,” said Alexander.

Several schools a decade ago offered degree programs designed specifically to qualify graduates to take the state PCA exam. Today, only one school, Chico State, has a PCA curriculum. The Pathway to PCA program hopes to revitalize PCA curriculums at other colleges and universities and work with guidance counselors to ensure freshmen are informed about the science and math curriculum necessary to take the PCA exam after four years of college and a degree.

Industry leaders say recent graduates who are interested in a PCA career often learn they must go back to school to earn the necessary credits to qualify for the state exam. That usually nullifies any desire to pursue a PCA career.

“We see a lot of young people interested in going into the business and there are people wanting to hire them, but they do not qualify to take the exam,” said Lyman.

“We really need to catch potential PCA candidates before they are freshmen. Pathway to PCA will focus on high schools,” he added. Community college will be another focus of the Pathway to PCA effort. This is where many of the potential PCA candidates can obtain core science classes before moving on to a four-year school and the bachelor’s degree necessary to become a California PCA.

Companies like Helena and Tremont operate intern programs. Lyman’s company is even willing to pay a promising PCA candidate to return to school.

“However, companies now realize we all need to reach out even farther to create a bigger pool of candidates. The clocking is ticking for all of us in the industry,” Lyman said.

CAPCA Chairman Gary Silveria, a biological science graduate from Chico State, said now is a good time to enter the field. “There are still experienced PCAs who can mentor young PCAs to take over in five or 10 years,” he added.

“There is a lot of freedom in the business. In many ways you are an independent business person,” said Silveria.

“It is hard work in the summer. It is not an 8-to-5 job and the responsibilities to protect crops can be heavy. The summers can be long and hot,” admitted Lyman. “You work hard three or four months of the year and then there is a lot of time in the off-season to do things you enjoy. In essence you punch your own time clock.”

The pay is competitive with other industries with full benefit packages.

“There is a lot of diversity available for a licensed PCA. You can obviously work in production agriculture, but there are other fields like nurseries, working for the government in a regulatory role, laboratories and even golf course superintendents,” said Silveria.

California agriculture is the most regulated in the country. It is also the most productive. It is facing many challenges, not the least of which is water availability.

“I am confident the state will solve the water problem and California agriculture will continue to be the No. 1 industry in the state,” said Lyman.

“There are too many hungry mouths to feed in the world for California agriculture and its ideal agricultural climate not to prosper,” Lyman said.

The world of a PCA is far more than swinging a sweep net counting pests and beneficials. About 80 percent of the state’s PCAs are also certified crop advisers, making them qualified experts in nutrient and water management as well.

“Technology is advancing rapidly in California agriculture. Computers, variable rate technology, GPS mapping … kids today eat this stuff up. I see today’s young people as the true future of California and Arizona agriculture. They will teach us all how to do things better,” said Alexander.

There is a complete list of qualifications necessary to take the state PCA exam on the California Department of Pesticide Regulation and CAPCA Web sites.

“The entire crop protection and management industry needs to get behind this effort and support it. The response so far has been excellent as the industry recognizes the need. There is no crisis now, but if we do not get something going soon, we will be in a major crisis,” added Alexander.

“Pathway to PCA is an opportunity to have an industry plan to fill the void we see in the future. It begins with hiring the right person to head this important effort,” said Lyman.

“PCAs are the environmental stewards of California agriculture and it is a proud profession,” said Silveria.

The $250,000 will be used to develop a three-year Pathway to PCA plan.

Additional information on the program is available from Stark at the CAPCA offices.

email: hcline@farmpress.com