Late last month, the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs (AFOP) held its annual national conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Over 300 attendees gathered to enhance their knowledge, skills, and abilities in serving the nation’s farmworkers through job training, career-advancement activities, and critical health and safety instruction. I applaud those individuals and their sponsoring agencies for investing the time and resources to engage in this important work.
In addition to a full day dedicated to farmworker health and safety, the conference included trainings by the United States Department of Labor (DOL) on implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act which preserves the National Farmworker Jobs Program (NFJP): the very bedrock of this nation’s commitment to agricultural worker advancement, providing employers with skilled and committed workers increasingly demanded. Administered by the DOL, the NFJP provides funding through a competitive national grant to 52 community-based organizations and public agencies assisting farmworker families. One of the DOL’s most successful employment training programs, NFJP helps agricultural workers acquire the new skills they need to start careers that offer higher wages and greater stability. In addition to employment and training services, the program supports agricultural workers to gain stability within their current jobs, and opens the door to new careers. NFJP housing assistance helps to meet a critical need in availability and quality of agricultural worker housing, thereby supporting better economic outcomes for workers and their families. NFJP also facilitates in coordination through the American Job Center network so that workers may access other services of the public workforce system.
The agricultural workers who come to NFJP seek the training they need to excel in the in-demand jobs employers say they find challenging to fill. In doing so, workers establish the financial foundation that allows them and their families to escape the chronic unemployment and underemployment they face each year. Many NFJP participants enter construction, welding, healthcare, and commercial truck-driving. Others train for work in the solar and wind energy sector, culinary arts, and for positions such as machinists, electrical linemen, and a variety of careers in and out of agriculture. To be eligible for NFJP, these workers must be low-income, depend primarily on agricultural employment, and provide proof of American citizenship or work authorization. Additionally, male applicants must have registered for the Military Selective Service.
AFOP Executive Director Daniel Sheehan addressing a 300+ audience of organization members.
Agricultural workers are among the hardest working individuals in this country, enduring tremendous hardships to provide the fruits, vegetables, and other foods Americans eat every day. Yet, agricultural workers remain among the nation’s most vulnerable, facing significant barriers to workplace advancement such as:
- The average agricultural worker family of four earns just $20,000 per year – well below the national poverty line.
- English-language fluency is a substantial challenge for many.
- Over half the children of migratory agricultural workers drop out of school, and among all agricultural workers the median highest grade completed is 9th, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey.
- Due to poverty and rural locations, most agricultural workers have extremely limited access to transportation.
Despite these barriers, NFJP continues to be one of the most successful federal job training programs, exceeding all of the major goals established by the DOL. In 2012 alone, NFJP organizations served more than 21,000 agricultural workers, according to DOL. Overall, these providers have served more than 200,000 agricultural workers and their family members over the last ten years.
Our national conference attendees also had the chance to participate in the AFOP Training Institute, which provides successful participants credentials in workforce development, foundations for next-generational leadership, and, for agency board members, targeted sessions on best management practices in not-for-profit organizations. I am very happy to report that attendees gave these presentations very high marks in their follow-up evaluations.
The conference was also our opportunity to celebrate the winners of the AFOP Children in the Fields Essay and Art Contest, sharpen communication skills with a body-language specialist, and induct six exceedingly deserving individuals into the AFOP Farmworker Advocate Hall of Fame. Those individuals are Luis Esparza, former MET executive director; Ernie Flores, former Central Valley Opportunity Center of California executive director; Arturo Lopez, Coalition of Florida Farmworker Organizations executive director; Lupe Martinez, United Migrant Opportunity Services president and chief executive officer; Franklin Montgomery of MET (posthumous); and Velma Smith of PathStone (posthumous).
Mr. Lupe Martinez – new inductee to the AFOP Farmworker Advocate Hall of Fame. Photo: Richard Roe, Kentucky Farmworker Programs, Inc.
These annual conferences are vital to AFOP’s mission to advocate for farmworkers. their families, and the organizations that serve them. The new president and Congress are challenging the need for federal programs to address societal needs – even those that demonstrate year in and year out tremendous success in delivering on their investment. However, AFOP has seen hard times before. We know how to pull together and fight through adversity to sustain the support farmworkers need to advance. We know what it takes to win. We know that, together, no one can beat us.
Thank you to all who attended our national conference. It’s because of you we can do what we need to here in Washington, D.C. to keep the farmworker program alive and make a positive difference in real people’s lives.
-Daniel Sheehan, AFOP Executive Director
Goofy faces – serious service! Photo: Richard Roe, Kentucky Farmworker Programs, Inc.