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Red-hot job market awaits many ag school graduates

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

Regional agricultural college leaders say job opportunities abound for their graduates, but they're having trouble keeping up with demand by the industry.

Paul Patterson got a laugh, if not insight, when he read a career website’s highly publicized rankings of the 200 best and worst jobs.

The highest-ranked farm-related position — agricultural scientist — was pegged at No. 122, in the bottom half of the list. It was below teacher’s aide and personal trainer in the rankings, which factored in physical demands, work environment, income, stress and the employment outlook.

But the true picture for agricultural scientists and other related jobs is markedly different, he said.

Patterson, a University of Idaho Extension economist, said agricultural employers report a gaping shortage of qualified applicants in many fields and say competition for skilled labor in the red-hot job market will only intensify.

He attributes the shortage to assumptions that the shrinking number of farms means fewer jobs.

“(People) equate the fact that there are fewer farmers to the fact that there are fewer opportunities in agriculture, and that’s just not true,” Patterson said. “Technology has certainly replaced some of the manual labor, but it’s also created a demand for people with certain skill sets that didn’t exist 10 years ago, and even five years ago.”

Agricultural colleges throughout the country have enjoyed increasing enrollment in recent years, but most administrators acknowledge their programs can’t keep pace with the growing number of job openings. And in many cases, the number of students enrolled in core agricultural disciplines — where most of the opportunities are — has been stagnant.

“There’s not a lot of exposure to the wide variety of careers that are available in agriculture,” said UI Extension cereals pathologist Juliet Marshall. “Unfortunately, we don’t have enough students coming in to meet the future needs of the demands that will be occurring in our agricultural careers — applied plant breeding, applied agronomy, applied soil sciences and applied plant pathology.”

A workforce shortage

Sonny Ramaswamy, director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, said the nation’s agricultural businesses are generating 60,000 jobs per year, while its universities are graduating just 25,000 students annually with the necessary degrees.

“People have left (agriculture) in droves, retired and gone,” Ramaswamy said during a July 10 speech at Washington State University. “You and I need to be very, very concerned about it.”

The Coalition for a Sustainable Agricultural Workforce — a partnership of scientific societies and agriculture industry leaders formed in 2009 to document the growing demand for agricultural graduates — conducted a recent survey of its six largest corporate members. The companies anticipate hiring more than 1,000 domestic full-time scientists by 2015, representing 13 percent of their total workforce of agricultural scientists. Of those positions, 84 percent will be in plant sciences, plant breeding and plant protection, and nearly half will require doctorates.

“We’re not going to do it,” Ramaswamy said. “Monsanto needs 800 plant breeders in the next five years — just Monsanto — and we’re not going to get there.”

He said agricultural graduates are enjoying increasing salaries, now on par with business school graduates, and most have their choice of at least two to three job offers.

Ellen Bergfeld represents the Alliance of Crop, Soil and Environmental Science Societies on the coalition’s board. She said the survey respondents agreed the pipeline of agricultural graduates is insufficient, anticipate challenges in finding qualified applicants and expect to retrain new hires to meet their needs.

“The gap is real, and we expect it to widen as competition continues,” Bergfeld said. “From the industry side, many of them are looking more internationally (for workers) than domestically. They can’t find trained folks here in the U.S., or they’re hiring folks with an aptitude but maybe not the skill set and supplementing with internal training programs.”

Agricultural college deans tell Bergfeld enrollment is increasing in animal science, but not necessarily in other key areas for farmers such as soil science and agronomy. Bergfeld has also been troubled by a recent trend of colleges dismantling undergraduate soil science programs.

J.R. Simplot Co. spokesman David Cuoio said his company has noted the need for more skilled labor and has supported agricultural education through scholarships, classroom visits and direct financial contributions.

“Agronomy and crop research positions are becoming increasingly harder to fill,” Cuoio said. “Ag is becoming more technical with each passing year.”

Growth misses key areas

Jeff Stark, superintendent of the UI Aberdeen Research and Extension Center, has experienced increasing challenges in filling positions.

“We’ve found some good applicants, but the pool is pretty shallow to draw from,” Stark said. “In some cases, we’ve had to repeat searches for positions because we haven’t found qualified applicants.”

UI College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Dean John Foltz has noticed the candidate pool is becoming increasingly international as he seeks to fill vacant staff positions. There’s also been a shift toward international graduate students.

“One of the things we’re going to turn to in the next year or two is targeted marketing in some of these areas where we have capacity and good jobs available,” Foltz said.

UI enrollment statistics show the college grew from roughly 400 students in 1986 to more than 1,200 students in the fall of 2013. Foltz, however, notes most of the growth has occurred in animal and veterinary sciences and family and consumer sciences. Agricultural and extension education and agricultural economics and rural sociology have seen only minimal growth, and enrollment has been flat in food science, plant, soils and entomological sciences and biological and agricultural engineering.

Foltz said there’s an overabundance of animal science students interested in becoming veterinarians, though entry into the program has become more competitive than for medical schools. He encourages incoming students aspiring to be veterinarians to also investigate the food, plant, soil and entomological sciences.

Increasing enrollment in Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences has also missed some key areas, said Russ Karow, head of the Crop and Soil Science Department.

“We’ve had increases primarily in areas like food science, fish and wildlife and animal sciences and not in the agronomic professions,” Karow said. “In the hard-core commercial agriculture professions, we’re stable at best.”

Though OSU’s horticulture department has seen an enrollment spike, Karow said most of those graduates are interested in organic and small farming, prompted by the local food movement. Karow said OSU could double its graduates specializing in crops and soils and still find plenty of jobs for them.

Phil Hamm, director of OSU’s Hermiston Research and Extension Center, said companies have snatched his top graduate students before they even finish their thesis.

“We have companies calling us and asking us if we had graduate students nearly done because they’re looking for people,” Hamm said.

Ag education ambassadors

UI, OSU, WSU and University of California-Davis all participate in the national Ag Ambassadors program to raise awareness among high school students about career opportunities in agriculture.

Participants get college credits to visit high schools and attend events for college-bound high school students, such as FFA conferences. At UI, ambassadors make at least six classroom visits per semester, covering schools throughout Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana.

“The outlook for the open positions that are going to be needed (in agriculture) is far more than universities are training for,” said UI ambassador Travis Chase, an agricultural business and soil science double major. “I think we’re some of the first ones who are bringing (high school students) that message.”

UI ambassador Rachael Ashley had two job offers with $50,000-$60,000 salaries before she graduated in May with bachelor’s degrees in agribusiness and animal science.

“I’ve had the chance to be selective about the first job I take,” Ashley said.

Ag colleges see growth

Applications at the UC-Davis College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences rose 4 percent this year. Within agricultural majors specifically, enrollment increased from 5,493 in 2009 to 6,274 in 2013, with much of the gains coming in animal sciences and managerial economics, said Sue Ebeler, associate dean for undergraduate academic programs. Diane Ullman, who held the position prior to Ebeler, said it’s been tough to recruit students into the plant sciences.

WSU has seen growth across the board in its agricultural degrees since it restructured its College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences about six years ago, said recruitment and retention coordinator Nick Grimm.

Grimm explained WSU centralized undergraduate programs from several departments under two degree programs. Enrollment in agronomy majors listed under Agricultural and Food Systems has increased from 92 in 2008 to 180. Enrollment in Integrated Plant Sciences, which covers plant genetics, has increased from 85 to 180.

“As a recruiter for the college, I don’t have to be a salesman. I just have to tell them what the opportunities are, because there are a ton of them, and people do not know about them,” Grimm said.

Rich Koenig, WSU associate dean and director of extension, said the university emphasized marketing the new majors after the reorganization. WSU also created 30 undergraduate internships working with extension faculty to spur interest in off-campus positions, where there’s been increasing turnover.

Despite having reversed a declining enrollment trend, Koenig said, “Industry tells us we’re not keeping up with demand because of those retirements. The forecast for demand for employees in ag is just incredible.”


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