AFOP’s 41st National Conference took place in Boston, Massachusetts on September 19-21. It was attended by nearly 400 National Farmworker Jobs Program (NFJP) staff and directors, monitor advocates, AFOP member agencies’ board members, and our SAFE AmeriCorps members. Also in attendance were special honorees, including child farmworkers who won AFOP’s essay and art contest, former farmworkers who have since secured self and family sustaining employment through the NFJP, and businesses in and outside of the agriculture community working closely with NFJP service providers to afford great employment opportunities for clients.
The annual conference covered a variety of topics including program management, employment and training, health and safety, agency board trainings, and monitor advocate trainings. The array of workshops provided an invaluable opportunity for NFJP staff to gain further training in case management and job development, as well as network with other professionals in the same field and share ideas.
The conference also kicked off the AFOP Training Institute’s Job Retention Certification program, taught by Jodie Sue Kelley from Cygnet Associates. The program will last one year and includes on-site trainings at regional conferences, webinars every six weeks, and independent homework and projects. At the end of the program, the participants will take a final test in order to earn the credential. Additionally, each participant will have developed their own portfolio featuring all of the work they completed during the year, including activities they designed focusing on job retention. Ms. Kelley states that the benefits of the program will last long after this year, as the participants will have learned tools and strategies to implement in their daily work with clients. Participants can also earn Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for their work through the University of Missouri. After meeting everyone at the conference, Ms. Kelley felt it was a very enthusiastic group and is looking forward to working with everyone over the next year.
On the last day of the conference I presented two sessions on best practices in successful workforce development programs. Best or promising practices are important because they allow programs to replicate work others have done that has proven to be successful. Replication can save time, energy, and resources. Currently, there is little data on promising practices for professionals working exclusively with migrant and seasonal farmworkers. Consequently, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration is looking at identifying effective practices. It is asking NFJP staff and monitor advocates to submit: (1) research and evaluation studies that provide an evidence base for workforce practices; or (2) “Innovations in Action,” which are noteworthy and promising workforce practices for serving farmworkers. AFOP encourages NFJP staff to submit their ideas since they have a proven track record of success in helping migrant and seasonal farmworkers earn credentials, move into higher paying jobs, and become more financially stable.
One practice proven to be successful is the collaboration between NFJPs and local community colleges to provide job training to farmworkers. Recently, the NFJP operated by MET, Inc. in Texas was featured in The Texas Observer for their collaboration with Amarillo College in forming their first electric power worker training program. Since completing the program and earning their certification, all nine NFJP participants were hired by a local power company and are earning $22-$25 per hour plus benefits. While forming these types of partnerships can be time- and resource-intensive, they can be extremely successful in moving farmworkers into highly skilled and in-demand industries with a well thought-out plan.
In my sessions I asked attendees to write down the biggest challenge they face in their jobs, and to think about ways to make them easier and about those individuals from whom they can get help. They then got into small groups and discussed their challenges and shared ideas. Despite coming from all over the country and from both small and large programs, the attendees all shared similar challenges. The most common challenge was tracking down clients with whom they have lost touch, often due to frequent moving and changing phone numbers. The groups had several ideas on how to help with this problem, including getting contact information for multiple friends and family members before enrolling participants, and even using social media platforms, such as Facebook, to stay connected with them. The discussions proved to be beneficial—many said they were leaving with ideas they could implement when they returned to their home states.
I encourage all NFJP staff to stay connected with each other, either at the national or regional conferences, or through Facebook or email, to continue the dialogue and share ideas about what is and what is not working. The Western Alliance of Farmworkers Advocates (WAFA) regional conference is taking place in Sacramento, California from October 22-23. I will be presenting at the conference and look forward to continuing the discussion on the challenges and successes NFJP staff share. I also hope to hear from some attendees who have implemented new ideas they learned at the AFOP conference, and to see how they are working.