School districts across the country, even those in urban areas, are tuning in to the opportunities for graduates with agriculture knowledge, and at the same time are discovering that agricultural education programs can be very effective at delivering critical STEM concepts, no matter what career path students select.
“A lot of students get interested in my program because they need something heavy in science to prepare them for careers in medicine,” said Tiffany Morey, the agriscience teacher at West Caldwell Tech Campus, part of the Essex County, New Jersey Vocational Technical School system .
None of Morey’s students have experience in traditional agriculture — most have never even seen a farm. “We serve students from the New York metro area,” she said. “Our students come from some of the most challenging districts in the state — Newark, Orange. They’re 98 percent African American and Hispanic, and most would be the first in their families to go to college, if that’s the path they choose. They want to be nurses, doctors, or veterinarians. Once they’re in the agriculture program, they like the labs, see the opportunities, and are like hey, I want to do something with agriculture.”
The program at West Caldwell focuses on horticulture, which is the science, technology and business involved in intensive plant cultivation. That’s the right field to be in, because according to data from AgCareers.com, an online job posting site that specializes in agriculture jobs, agronomy, also a discipline also within the plant science realm, has been the highest demand industry type for the last five years running.
“Things like urban agriculture, gardening, and hydroponics are hot right now,” said Morey. Her program teaches students the science behind plant genetics, but it also gives them hands-on experience through out-of-school work experiences. Morey has students who work at a hydroponic greenhouse through an agreement with their county Department of Parks and Recreation, as well as at nearby Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, the world’s largest collection of irises. The opportunity to have meaningful work that relates to their field of study gives Morey’s students experience they can point to when applying for their next job, a real advantage over flipping burgers.
Another area of high demand within agriculture is sales. Again, the area of highest need for agricultural sales people is in the plant science industry, but the animal science, environmental, and other sectors within agriculture also struggle to fill all their available sales positions.
“One reason these roles are hard to fill is because successful sales people have to have the total package,” said Ashley Collins, with AgCareers.com. Collins says things like leadership, strong written and verbal communications, and teamwork skills are the things that round out an employee and make them highly marketable.
Back at the West Caldwell program, students learn those 21st century skills through FFA, which is part of Morey’s in-class program, not an after-school activity. As FFA members, Morey’s students compete in public speaking and knowledge-based quiz events, attend leadership conferences, and learn to network.
“I can tell the difference,” said Cindy Langenberg, senior human resources manager — talent acquisition, at DuPont Pioneer. DuPont Pioneer bills itself as the world’s leading developer and supplier of advanced plant genetics, with business operations in more than 90 countries.
“When I’m interviewing somebody who’s had exposure to agriculture classes, I can tell. It’s not just the agriculture background, although that’s important. It’s the leadership and communication skills, the work ethic — they just get it. They have the combination of things we need.”
Like the rest of the industry, Langenberg struggles to fill all her open positions. “I can never find enough agronomists,” she said. Agronomists understand the science behind DuPont Pioneer’s products and work as a bridge of sorts between stakeholders like customers, researchers, and the general public. “We need agronomists in sales, production, research — we really use them across the board, around the world, in every aspect of our business.”
Looking further down the road, Langenber also cites the need for workers with that elusive total package. “Right now we are looking for very traditional agronomy-type workers,” she said. “We will always need that, but as our industry becomes more complex — and issues like food security, nutrition and supply come to the forefront, people who have combined skill sets are going to become very valuable. Skills like IT and data management combined with a background in agriculture will be very desirable.”
Besides plant science, jobs in agriculture revolving around animals remain in high demand, and new careers related to sustainability, the environment, and renewable energy are on the rise. Last summer, FCAE, an Illinois governmental group dedicated to facilitating coordination in agricultural education, published fact sheets on high demand careers in agriculture. The report included job titles like conservationist, environmental engineer, nutritionist, biological technician and hydrologist.
“One of the things we try to stress is that there’s absolutely no reason why the best and the brightest in the country wouldn’t consider a career in agriculture,” said Sam Pardue, the Interim Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University (NCSU). NCSU has the largest college of agriculture in the southeast.
According to Pardue, historically, entry level positions in agriculture haven’t been as lucrative as in other fields, but that’s changing, especially when students take the long view. “I tell people, ‘What you’ve got to look at is where are you going to be in 10 or 15 years?’” he said. “How quickly are you going to hit that ceiling in engineering or another career?”
Agriculture seems to be an industry without a ceiling right now, and with the world population expected to exceed nine billion by 2050, today’s learners are in a prime position to solve the question of how to feed all those mouths.
“It’s encouraging when I talk with students,” said Langenberg, “They’re very interested in being a part of something bigger than themselves. They want to do something better, be part of a solution. That’s what we’re going to need to feed all these people. “