This column was written by former Sen. Mike Johanns, Chairman of Agriculture at alliantgroup. As the 28th Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Johanns directed 18 agencies employing 90,000 staff worldwide and managed a $93 billion budget. Johanns says the skills gap is a problem the entire United States faces, but the agriculture sector in particular struggles to fill an increasing number of vacant jobs that only the tech-savvy can do. More information is available at https://www.alliantgroup.com/industries/agriculture/
The agriculture industry in America is stronger than ever, but it faces a serious dilemma.
Farming today is a beautiful blend of modern and ancient technologies working in harmony to help feed the people of the world, however the reality is the U.S. simply doesn’t have enough skilled workers to continue to push the industry forward.
Technological developments in the agriculture sector have created heightened expectations not just for crop yield, but workers as well, which when mixed with the lack of STEM graduates in the U.S. has created an uphill battle for farmers.
Across the country, farmers are “hard-pressed these days to find mechanics trained to maintain their 21st-century equipment or workers who understand the complexities of modern farming,” Matt Krupnick reported for The Guardian.
The root of the problem is multi-faceted. First, the U.S. has a staggeringly low number of students graduating from college with a STEM degree. The country currently graduates roughly 500,000 STEM students each year, which is dwarfed by countries like China and India, which have millions of graduating STEM students.
The lack of STEM graduates creates a problem across the board, with TechNet in Washington, D.C. estimating what could turn into a $500 billion opportunity gap for the country. But it increasingly impacts the agriculture industry, which now is in desperate need of more workers with technical skills.
According to Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agriculture industry will need nearly 60,000 college graduates to fill new roles by 2020—and as of 2015, college agriculture programs were only producing approximately 35,400 future work candidates.
As a result, some community colleges are stepping up to the plate to bridge this divide. The Rural Community College Alliance has cited that nearly two-thirds of the community colleges in the U.S. are located in rural areas. These institutions have a unique opportunity to help their students realize the promise and potential of the American agriculture industry.
For instance, Motlow State Community College in Tennessee teamed up with Tennessee State University in Nashville to create a program for students wishing to pursue an associate, and ultimately bachelor’s degree in agricultural business.
But more must be done to help close the widening opportunity gap the agriculture industry faces. Organizations like Future Farmers of America are also taking up the challenge, putting on career development events throughout the year to spark interest and further hone the skills of those entering the workforce.
In other parts of the world, progress is occurring to meet the need for high tech skills. In the United Kingdom between 2011 and 2015, the number of vacant agriculture jobs due to lacking skills went from 28% to 22%. Partnerships with agriculture colleges and leading food producers, manufacturers and retailers have helped drive people toward the industry.
Still, Katie Garner, manager of the Bright Crop cross-industry initiative in the U.K., told Farmers Weekly that it has been difficult to recruit in the agriculture sector based on the perception that it is a “low-tech career choice.”
“It is a big concern because that perception is completely wrong. Technology is booming and we need highly trained, IT-savvy staff to keep us competitive,” she said, adding that the industry needs those who are qualified in modern technology and engineering practices.
Growing up on a 30-cow dairy farm in Iowa, I’ve seen just how much technology has woven its way into the agriculture sector in the U.S. Ms. Garner couldn’t be more accurate in her assessment.
Now, the average dairy farm houses hundreds, if not thousands of cows and leverages science and technology on a daily basis. These are tools that need capable and skilled hands to manage.
Besides efforts at the collegiate level, our country should take a hard look at sparking the interest of middle and high school students not just in STEM fields, but also in the ways in which STEM and agriculture can work hand in hand.
The Decatur Public Schools Foundation found a unique opportunity to connect its students with the area’s burgeoning “agribusiness universe.” The school system launched a host of agriculture classes where students with local farms participated as a part of a variety of programs, including a complete four year ag-centered education.
According to tech news site CityLab, the school system plans to raise awareness through $1.65 million it received from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which they are using to create a farm that will be run by the students.
The food and agriculture technology markets are projected to reach approximately $730 billion by 2023. While these figures are a sign of encouragement for the agriculture industry, for the U.S. to remain globally competitive, steps must be taken to support technology’s place in the everyday life of farmers and ranchers.
The first step? Making sure we have the skilled farmers of tomorrow ready to take on the challenge.