Foster School’s Business Certificate Program plants seeds for career growth among Eastern Washington’s tree fruit industry employees and beyond

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A Foster School program has been evolving in Eastern Washington since its inception more than two decades ago. Today, the course is targeting mid-level managers in the fruit industry and more than 150 companies throughout the Yakima Valley.

Story by: Jackson Holtz // Video by: Kiyomi Taguchi // Photos by: Dennis Wise

TRI-CITIES AND YAKIMA, Washington — Corey Smith’s office window overlooks one of the massive production lines inside the Douglas Fruit processing plant at the outskirts of Pasco, Washington. The scene is fantastic, like something out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Conveyor belts fill the gigantic room. On one end, apples are dumped by the bin into a water flume that floats the fruit like a carnival ride. A giant machine inspects, weighs, photographs (about 100 images for each piece of fruit) and sorts, sending each apple along another conveyor belt to be boxed.

The floral smell of apples fills the enormous facility.

In summer months, production lines like these also wash, scrutinize and sort stone fruit — peaches, apricots and nectarines. But the rest of the year they process apples, hundreds of thousands of apples, up to 4,000 pieces of fruit every minute. The varieties — Fuji, Red Delicious, Honey Crisp and more — are stored in climate-controlled rooms, then run through the plant, where they’re boxed up for delivery.

Some apples go to regional grocery chains. Others are sent across the world to Israel and Saudi Arabia. The perfect apples wind up as afternoon snacks, eaten whole. Other apples are destined for pie, juices or applesauce.

It’s Smith’s job to be the apple counter. He’s an accountant, and now the company’s chief financial officer, whose rise to the C-suite was spurred by his completion of the University of Washington’s Business Certificate Program.

“The program was a very hands-on approach to topics,” Smith said. “I use this stuff every day. It kind of bolsters your ability. You’re learning while you’re on the job and can apply it right away.”

people work with apples on a conveyor belt

The program, managed by the Foster School’s Consulting and Business Development Center, has been evolving in Eastern Washington since its inception more than two decades ago. Today, the course is targeting mid-level managers in the fruit industry and more than 150 companies throughout the Yakima Valley. There are now multiple in-person options in Yakima and, since the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, students in Central and Eastern Washington can access the class online.

For six weeks, a cohort meets for a high-level introduction to three major business principles: management, marketing and accounting. There’s now an advanced option, too, that covers human resources topics, industry analysis and B2B marketing, corporate social strategy and managerial accounting.

To date, nearly 800 students from Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla and Yakima counties have completed the certificate. Of these students, 175 went on to complete the advanced course.

There’s room for about 45 students in the in-person cohort and 75 students in the online course. The program is popular: Most classes in Yakima fill up within several hours.

Elsie Puig said she signed up right away when she learned about the program in the Tri-Cities. There aren’t a lot of classes for working professionals in the region, so this one was particularly valuable.

“It’s been great so far,” Puig said. “The quality of the content is amazing. I’ve learned a lot, you go deep.”

Since taking the class in 2019, she’s moved from a marketing position at a software company to now working in communications for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Program bolsters workforce

The idea is to accelerate student careers and grow businesses and jobs in communities where they’re needed the most, said Wilfredo T. Tutol, Jr., the director of Washington state programs in the Consulting and Business Development Center.

Companies in the region fund the program so that participation is free to most students, Tutol said.

“Our mission is all about access to a world-class education,” he said.

By engaging students in solving complex, unstructured, real-world challenges, they learn to think strategically, develop leadership skills and integrate knowledge across business disciplines. More than 95% of students who participate in the center’s programs report improved job performance after graduation because of what they learned from the UW’s classes.

I feel grateful that this program was out there for me, because it really changed my life.
Julio CruzRecent graduate

“It really opens your eyes to a lot of things that normally you wouldn’t get exposed to by just working day to day,” said Julio Cruz, a recent graduate and a regional operations manager with AgroFresh Solutions, Inc., a fruit-industry technology company. “I feel grateful that this program was out there for me, because it really changed my life.”

Cruz intended to pursue college after high school, but family obligations led him instead to work in the Yakima Valley.

“I ended up picking fruit like everybody else because the economy was going south,” Cruz said. “And I needed a job right then, so I went and picked fruit.”

a photo of julio cruz
Julio Cruz

His hopes of continuing his education faded until managers recommended the UW’s Business Certificate Program. Cruz got so much out of the course that he completed the advanced program, too.

“It was a very interactive course,” Cruz said. “It gave me the ability to ask questions and get answers, and people who were taking the course at the time with me were in similar situations. Our questions and their answers made sense to all of us.”

That’s in line with the program’s goals of deepening and expanding participants’ business skills to help them take on more responsibility, climb the corporate ladder and become the industry leaders of the future.

“This is really important for them,” said Gabriela Michan, an associate director in the UW Consulting and Business Development Center. “This has helped them to move forward in their careers.”

Foster School history across the Cascades

The Foster School has had various programming in Eastern Washington for decades. In 2003, faculty launched business education classes in the Tri-Cities, and classes have been offered in both Spanish and English over the years. In Yakima, about 45% of participants are women and more than 60% are Latino.

The Foster School has a long history of providing services to global businesses over the mountains, Tutol said. At first, the school sent students to consult with businesses one on one.

“It was great for the companies, but couldn’t scale,” Tutol said.

That’s when the current certificate program was born. Designed to be a “Business 101” for small business entrepreneurs, the curriculum was developed with input from local business leaders. Foster School leaders heard from companies in Eastern Washington that they needed ways to incentivize the workforce and to help recruit and maintain quality staff, while strengthening the regional economy.

“We believe in higher education, and we believe in giving people opportunities through higher education,” said Dan Plath, a fourth-generation fruit grower and processor, and president of Orchard Operations at Washington Fruit & Produce Co., headquartered in Yakima.

Blossoming partnership

Food and agriculture is a large sector in the state’s economy. Apples alone account for more than $3 billion in annual wholesale value, providing about 68,000 jobs, according to the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, a trade group. It’s also a diversified sector with many small- and medium-sized businesses.

Photos above: Inside the Douglas Fruit processing plant near Pasco, Washington.

 

The relationship between the fruit tree industry, specifically, and the Foster School also dates back years and now is flourishing with programs like the Business Certificate Program, said Ed Kershaw, an executive with SuperFresh Growers and one of the program’s longtime sponsors.

“What we found is that now we have greater involvement, more employees and more leading employers who are committing resources to this,” Kershaw said. “The secret sauce between employers and employees is education.”

That was evident in early May when about 60 students gathered in the backyard of a Yakima brewery to celebrate another cohort of graduates. The stories people shared at the celebration showcased how the participants gained confidence and business knowledge that allowed them, like Cruz, to shoulder additional responsibilities.

a group of graduates stand with certificates and pose for a group photo

“We’re hoping that they gain knowledge and skills that can help them do their jobs better,” said Jane Reynolds, a Foster School lecturer who teaches management principles as part of the certificate program.

For Cruz, the program has helped support his career development, and he has taken on increasing responsibilities, such as operations in the Pacific Northwest and California. He’s traveled the country and the world representing his company and working with customers.

“I took the course, and it just skyrocketed my career,” he said. “I give a lot of credit to this program, and it kind of opened my eyes to a lot of things that I wasn’t aware of before. And just being aware of them made me want to work that much harder to learn and master those skills. And my company saw it and rewarded me for it.”

See related stories on KAPP (ABC affiliate) and in the Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business.

Support similar educational programs

The Consulting and Business Development Center is seeking to build a $2 million endowment to ensure that the UW Foster School continues to invest educational programs like these in the Yakima Valley and across Central and Eastern Washington. Click here to learn more.