A new initiative promises to bring the San Joaquin Valley’s agriculture industry into the future, with creative and innovative advancements in agricultural technology, engineering, and workforce training and education.
A $15 million investment from the state, made possible by Sen. Anna Caballero, will help fund the new Agrifood Technology and Engineering Collaborative (AgTEC). Led by the Central Valley Community Foundation, AgTEC will leverage the strength of community colleges throughout the Valley — with contributions from small farmers and multinational companies alike — to revolutionize how agricultural workers learn the skills they need to pursue rewarding careers in the industry.
Goals of the program, which was announced Sept. 6 at a press conference on the Merced College campus, include the training and upskilling of 8,400 job-ready workers within four years, a 60% growth in wages for agricultural workers, and a total investment of $50 million toward workforce development.
“The San Joaquin Valley is one of the biggest producers of food in the world, yet our communities continue to struggle with poverty and unemployment,” said Caballero (D-Merced).
“AgTEC provides innovation, education and training that will lead to better-paying jobs and an even more vibrant industry for our region.”
The AgTEC program is part of the Fresno-Merced Future of Food (F3) Innovation Initiative, a CVCF-led collaboration that aims to fund a Valley-wide Climate-Smart Agrifood Technology and Engineering Cluster with a focus on digitalization and data science, mechatronics, equipment, and systems testing and integration for agrifood applications. The program is a collaborative workforce education program among seven regional colleges, including Merced, Reedley, Madera, Fresno City, Clovis, West Hills Lemoore and Coalinga, and College of the Sequoias.
F3 seeks to drive both economic growth and equity, spurring inclusive innovation and commercialization while building a seamless talent development pipeline and catalyzing local market growth of the small-scale farm and food industry.
The F3 initiative last week was named a recipient of $65 million through the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge. As part of this allocation, Merced College will receive more than $27 million to serve as the project lead for the AgTEC Workforce initiative, which will include a new Ag Technology Innovation Center.
“The challenges faced by the Central Valley can only be solved through partnerships and collaboration, with under-resourced communities mobilizing to forge new paths for civic renewal, inclusion and change,” said Ashley Swearengin, CEO of CVCF. “More than just economic development, this is a story of marshalling the collective impact of our incredible partners in industry, education and government to create a better future for our region.”
Merced College, along with the seven other community colleges and worker representatives, will develop a new, integrated approach to ag technician education that ensures a long-term sustainable and equitable workforce pipeline. The result will be open access to a joint regional training program with the capacity to double the annual workforce pipeline.
The new training will incorporate competency-based education (CBE) — which awards credit for demonstrating needed competencies, rather than mandating redundant traditional coursework — leading to a regional, industry-recognized “applied agriculture systems certificate” with stackable credentials.
President Chris Vitelli said Merced College is honored to receive this allocation, which will support the AgTEC portion for all colleges as part of the F3 initiative, given its long track record of supporting agriculture through industry partnerships and the innovative, supportive training and education it provides to local students.
The AgTEC announcement took place just outside the college’s brand-new Raj Kahlon Agriculture and Industrial Technology Complex, a state-of-the-art, 29,000-square-foot facility that will provide an innovative space for collaboration among a variety of related disciplines. A ribbon cutting for the building is scheduled for noon on Thursday, Sept. 15.
“At Merced College, we are always looking to the future and envisioning new and innovative ways to serve and support our students, while also contributing to the success and growth of our region,” Vitelli said. “We could not be more proud or more excited to be a part of the AgTEC initiative, and to provide this incredible new facility to benefit our students, educators and industry partners.”