Wanted: 54,000-plus talented individuals to fill U.S. agriculture-related job openings in 2011. If that news sounds less than credible, it’s probably because the overall unemployment rate in the U.S. hovers above 9%. Yet USDA reports that this large number of agricultural jobs is available now and will continue to be available on an annual basis through 2015.
Equally incredible: USDA predicts that 46% of these available jobs will go unfilled this year alone.
"It’s a trend we’re living with, and it has to change," says Thomas Holt, manager of biology for BASF Corp. Holt spoke on the topic of commitment to agriculture during the 2011 Beltwide Cotton Conferences.
He says the shortage of qualified agricultural job applicants is due to several factors. One is a lack of awareness; students entering college simply don’t know about the opportunities. Due to changing demographics, the majority of students come from nonfarm backgrounds and have no hands-on knowledge or appreciation of agriculture.
The Weed Science Society of America (WSSA) reports: "Budget cuts, retirements and competition from higher paying industry jobs have resulted in the steady drain of agricultural sciences faculty—the very individuals responsible for recruiting and training. Grant monies are pouring into molecular biology and other basic sciences—not into applied sciences like agriculture."
Within agriculture, USDA reports that nearly half of the available jobs are in business and management. Only 15% of the job openings today are in applied agriculture.
That trend is reinforced by the type of baccalaureate degrees awarded in 2007, WSSA reports. That year, students attained 4,010 degrees in agricultural business and management but only 177 in crop production.
Holt notes that without qualified research agronomists at the university level, the crop protection industry cannot deliver weed, disease and insect control solutions to farmers. He says a large part of the solution is for the industry to attract more youth from urban settings.
Science opens doors. Both Wun Chao and Lori Wiles came from nonfarm settings, entered the agricultural workforce and are now employed by the USDA–Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
"Many of the leading researchers in weed science have nontraditional backgrounds, aren’t from a farm and didn’t earn an undergraduate degree in an agricultural science," says Wiles, a USDA–ARS plant physiologist based in Fort Collins, Colo.
Wiles, who grew up in West Virginia and northern Ohio, says her journey to an agricultural career started the first time she used a microscope in junior high and became interested in science.
Chao got the idea to pursue an agricultural career from his father.
"He always liked to grow things," says Chao, who grew up in Orange County, Calif., a far cry from his current residence in Fargo, N.D.
For the past 10 years, Chao has worked in weed biology research for USDA–ARS. His research focuses on addressing leafy spurge, a perennial weed that, in dense stands, takes over fields and snuffs out pasture grasses.
Wiles says that working with farmers and the diversity of her work are two benefits she values.
"Some days I am out in a field collecting data, sometimes I’m writing and sometimes I’m doing statistics or computer programming," she notes. "I’m usually working on a couple of different projects at one time."
A living wage. Economic considerations are always of interest to job seekers. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, beginning salary offers in July 2009 for new graduates with a bachelor’s degree in animal science averaged $33,732 a year; plant science, $33,456 a year; and other agricultural sciences, $34,699 a year.
A bachelor’s degree in agricultural science is sufficient to qualify for many of the available jobs, but a master’s or Ph.D. degree may be required for research positions.
For those without college degrees, online degree options are increasing. The Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance, a consortium of 28 colleges and universities, offers several agricultural disciplines.