Editor's note: The following article was featured in the July/August issue of PorkNetwork magazine.
U.S. agriculture producers and food companies are struggling to attract enough workers, a problem the industry concedes is getting worse as innovation and growing demand for their products leads to the creation of thousands of new jobs.
Agribusinesses have been working for years to draw employees and stop the loss of highly qualified workers to other fields. In recent years, producers, companies, colleges and others within the ag industry have promoted opportunities beyond the farmer in the field that were overlooked in the past — resulting in a dearth of employees.
"We certainly have a shortfall, no doubt about it," says Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, in an article by Christopher Doering , Gannett Washington Bureau, USA Today. Ramaswamy added that while there has been an increase in the number of students enrolled in agriculture at U.S. universities, "it hasn’t been enough to keep up with the demand that we have in the workforce."
The National Institute of Food and Agriculture funded a study released by Purdue University in 2010 that showed between 2010 and 2015, an estimated 54,400 jobs would be created annually in agricultural, food and renewable natural resources. To help fill the void, approximately 29,300 students are expected to earn degrees in traditional agriculture and life science-related fields each year. An additional 24,200 students are seen coming from disciplines such as biological sciences or businesses where graduates could choose to go into agriculture or another field.
Producers and ag businesses hope to lure prospective workers by showcasing modern agriculture, where employees are immersed in everything from animal and plant genetics to robotics and GPS systems. To help attract employees, businesses have boosted salaries, increased internships and worked more closely with universities to better prepare students for what they can expect when they graduate.
A January survey of members of the Coalition for a Sustainable Agricultural Workforce (whose companies include General Mills, DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto and Cargill) found the pipeline of graduates isn't as full as it should be and there will be challenges finding people with the right education and experience.
Paul Schickler, president of DuPont Pioneer in Johnston, Iowa, says in the past six years, the seed company has hired about 6,000 people worldwide, swelling its ranks to 13,000 employees. DuPont Pioneer expects to add 3,000 to 4,000 more workers in the next five years.
"The demand is there for the opportunity and talent," says Schickler, vice chairman of the STEM Food & Ag Council, a public-private partnership designed to promote education and career opportunities in the food and agricultural sectors. "It's tough finding talent."
The worker shortage has been a problem the industry has been aware of for years. Beginning around 2005, Iowa State University started hearing from people representing agribusiness, commodity organizations and other groups that the school needed to produce more graduates.
"There was a human capital shortage at the time and as they saw the economy increasing and jobs growing, they wanted Iowa State to increase the number of graduates to help along that line," says Tom Polito, director of student services at the university's college of agriculture and life sciences in Ames, Iowa."Because of that input, we started responding to that need."
The school boosted its efforts to attract students by promoting the diverse range of jobs available. The initiative helped increase the number of students enrolled at Iowa State's college of agriculture and life sciences from 2,448 in 2005 to a record 3,900 during the 2012-2013 school year.
USDA's Ramaswamy said agriculture enrollment is increasing at most universities, with some schools experiencing double-digit increases.
Amanda Lorack, a senior at Iowa State, grew up on a farm 20 miles south of Iowa City where her father raised corn, soybeans and hogs. Lorack, 21, participated in 4-H and the National FFA Organization, formerly the Future Farmers of America, and helped her father on the farm whenever she could. "It's always been a part of my life and I knew I wanted a career in ag someday. It's something that I have a passion for," she says.
Thad Simons, chief executive of Novus in St. Louis, did not have an agricultural background before he began working for the company, which produces nutritional supplements for animal feed. He says the industry is to blame for not doing a better job promoting itself, especially the altruistic parts of the field and the role agriculture plays in feeding the world.
"People think that if they didn't grow up on the farm they have no role in farming or in agriculture and that's not really true," says Simons, who became CEO in March 2001."I think a lot of people get confused about what our industry is about. There is a huge need in terms of bringing more attention to it.”
Editor’s Note: This article was edited from an original article by Christopher Doering, Gannett Washington Bureau, USA Today.