Ag degrees 'useless?' Ask those who know
University officials report strong demand for knowledge of ag
By DEAN REA
For the Capital Press
Jon Iverson doesn't consider his college degree in agriculture "useless."
He had his pick of five job offers when he graduated in 2008 from Oregon State University with a major in crop and soil science and a minor in ag business.
Today, he handles enterprise budgeting for Iverson Family Farms near Woodburn and says he would choose the same career path "in a heartbeat."
His experience -- and the experiences of thousands of other ag degree recipients -- represent a stark contrast to a Yahoo website story published earlier this year that ranked agriculture as the No. 1 "useless" degree, animal science as No. 4 and horticulture as No. 5.
U.S. Department of Labor statistics refute that analysis. The department estimates that "employment of agricultural and food scientists is expected to grow by 16 percent between 2008 and 2018, faster than the average for all occupations."
Others also paint an optimistic employment picture for agriculture graduates.
"I am shocked that anyone would say that degrees in agriculture, horticulture and animal science are useless," Sonny Ramaswamy, OSU College of Agriculture dean, wrote in his blog after the Yahoo article appeared.
Ramaswamy, the new director of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, said the story was loosely based on Department of Labor projections cited in an online version of a Newsweek magazine article.
While the department is optimistic about employment for college graduates with ag degrees, the agency expects employment for farmers, ranchers and agricultural managers to decrease by 8 percent during the decade ending in 2018 because of increasing productivity and farm consolidation.
"If you take a narrow view that these degrees only train someone to be a farmer, there may be limited opportunities," said John Foltz of the University of Idaho. "If you take a broad view and say these degrees prepare you to be involved in the food and fiber production system, there are zillions of opportunities."
The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Idaho hasn't encountered problems in placing students in the job market, said Foltz, associate dean and director of academic programs. Last year, 334 seniors were among those enrolled in the school's seven departments.
"The challenge has been in turning out enough graduates to meet the jobs available in crop production areas," he said.
The story also is true at Washington State University, where Jim Durfey said employers line up to hire students who specialize in agricultural technology and production management.
"We can't turn out enough graduates to keep pace with the demand," said Durfey, who is an ag technology instructor and advises 86 students in the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.
The key, he said, is to train young people who not only understand the science of growing the crop but who also understand business.
Graduates in other areas of ag study at WSU also have been successful in finding jobs, he said, referring to employment opportunities listed on the AGcareers.com website.
The statistics published in the Yahoo story that ranked agriculture as the No. 1 "useless" degree do not reflect statistics from the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California-Davis, Dean Neal Van Alfen said.
Van Alfen said a 2008 survey showed that UC-Davis grads with ag degrees are finding work in their field.
He said the writer of the Yahoo article missed the point of education by trying to rank degrees based on future job prospects.
"As a renowned university, we offer degrees to educate people and to create lifetime learners," he said. "With the knowledge gained at universities, graduates have the skills to fill jobs, to pursue graduate education or to find other ways to improve the world."