MINNEAPOLIS – Adam Donkers and many of his friends at the University of Minnesota don’t need to worry about jobs after graduating. They’re majoring in agricultural sciences or agricultural business, and large and small companies are eager to hire them.
“Pretty much every member [of my ag fraternity] has a full-time job when they’re graduating,” Donkers said. “Every junior has an internship, most of the sophomores have internships, and a good handful of freshmen have internships.”
Job posting boards, on-campus interviews and a special annual career fair for ag students show much the same trend, according to Sara Newberg, director of the university career center that assists ag majors.
“We have a limited number of students with an interest in that career direction and far more employers interested in hiring them,” Newberg said.
Donkers, raised on a family farm in Minnesota, is a junior majoring in agricultural business. He’ll learn about agricultural lending this summer at CoBank, a co-op that specializes in farm credit. It will be Donkers’ third internship in 3 years, and he’s interested in grain merchandising as a career.
Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture studied the shortfall in agricultural jobs on a national basis, and estimated that from 2010 to 2015 there would be about 54,400 openings each year in agriculture and natural resource jobs, and about 29,300 graduates from specialized colleges and university departments to fill them.
Brian Buhr, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, said there’s clearly a need for more ag students in the pipeline, and he’s not surprised that companies are doubling down to find newly trained scientists.
“There’s a whole high-tech side of ag that’s really booming,” he said. “It’s everything from robotics and sensors in harvesting equipment or livestock production systems, or even managing soil and drainage issues, all the way over to the genetics and genomics side of the world.”
Adam Holton, CHS senior vice president of human resources, said the shortage of trained students is not a crisis, but that it has become more difficult to find and attract the best candidates in some areas.
“In our case, that runs the gamut on the pure engineering side with our energy business to our agriculture side to our processing and food ingredients,” he said. CHS is the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative. “There is a challenge, and as we go into the future it will get harder.”
To recruit the best people for its needs, Holton said, CHS has heightened is efforts to go “upstream” and contact undergraduate and community college students early in their studies to inform them about ag-related fields and careers. The company also maintains strong partnerships with colleges and universities, he said.
Don Wyse, a professor in the Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics at Minnesota, has watched the number of students in agricultural sciences fluctuate over the past four decades, and has supervised graduate students who took their advanced degrees into plant breeding and genetics labs at Monsanto, Syngenta and other companies.
Those jobs were in demand during the past decade, Wyse said, and students lost interest in basic agronomy – the science of growing crops for production – because there were fewer opportunities.
Now the pendulum is swinging back, said Wyse, because companies have determined that their future profits may depend less on new genetics, and more on improved crop systems that increase yields by using precision agriculture.
“So now the companies are stepping up and saying, where in the world are all the agronomists? And where are all the applied cropping systems people?” he said.
That might include people to analyze chlorophyll in plants to see how well they’re growing, Wyse said, or specialists to design precision planting equipment, or analysts to study soil chemistry and crop history to predict which varieties to plant and how far apart to space them.
“It’s a wide array of opportunities,” he said.
Holton, of CHS, agrees, and said basic agronomy knowledge coupled with the latest technical skills will be a winning combination for job seekers.
“The needs continue to grow to feed a hungry world with the same amount or less of acreage, and that’s all coming through technology: environmental sciences and agricultural sciences,” he said. “My guess is there are jobs that will exist in precision ag 10 years from now that we’re not even thinking about right now.”