WASHINGTON, March 3, 2016 - Even as land-grant agricultural schools are enrolling fewer students with a farm and ranch background today than in previous years, the demand for college graduates with the skills and knowledge for modern food and agricultural jobs is outstripping the supply, according to experts on a panel at the recent USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum.
“There is a huge gap in America in regards to the number of jobs being created and the number of graduates we are producing,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, director of USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Qualified agriculture school grads often see two or three job offers with “salaries very high, competing with business school and other graduates,” he said.
“It’s about the pipeline of people coming in,” he said, attracting people to study for food and farm sector jobs from a markedly different talent pool than in the past. “Significant changes are happening demographically,” he said. “Beginning with the fall semester of 2015, children of color are the majority who started school for the first time,” forcing agriculture to attract talent “from several different cultures other than European-American,” he said. As an example, he said that “children of undocumented workers often look at agriculture as something pejorative.”
“The average American is now at least three generations removed from the farm,” said Jessica Jones of Virginia Tech, president of the Virginia Association of Agricultural Educators. “This is the pool from which we must draw the talent.”
Purdue Agriculture Dean Jay Akridge said that agriculture school enrollment is becoming more diverse. About 30 percent of Purdue’s agriculture students are from the farm and about 20 percent from rural non-farm families, with half from many different backgrounds.
Citing a study that Purdue and NIFA published last year, Akridge said there were about 35,000 agriculture, forestry and natural resources graduates with four-year degrees last year compared with nearly 58,000 job openings in their fields.
“We need more young people coming into this enterprise,” Ramaswamy said, to translate knowledge and deliver it to end-users, adding, “We’ve lost a lot of that extension footprint. We need to reinvigorate the extension work force itself. It’s not enough to have all these scientists running around. Somebody has to go raise these crops.”
“Millennials are redefining work,” said Tomesah Harrison, human resources lead at Bayer Crop Science in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. “It would be unwise not to tap into this pool – a very diverse, well-educated, achievement-oriented segment of the population. They are driven to find meaningful work that will make the world a better place. They want purpose. I can’t think of an industry that better meets that need. It’s a marriage made in heaven – technology, sustainability, innovation, digitization, feeding the world.”
Akridge said land-grant universities, particularly at the graduate level, “have work to do. We mainly prepare graduate students to go into academia. We need to prepare more for industry and other lines of work.” He also posed a question that has dogged the land-grant system for years – whether there is too much duplication among the states: “How can we afford animal science programs at every land grant in the country in this budget environment?”
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