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Published April 09, 2012, 08:59 AM

Ag + education = jobs

CROOKSTON, Minn. — Like other college seniors across the country, Matthew Krueger, Theresa Hamel, Luke Langerud and Alysia Osowski are counting down the days until graduation. Unlike many of their peers, the four University of Minnesota-Crookston students aren’t concerned about landing work after graduation: they’ve had jobs lined up for months.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

CROOKSTON, Minn. — Like other college seniors across the country, Matthew Krueger, Theresa Hamel, Luke Langerud and Alysia Osowski are counting down the days until graduation. Unlike many of their peers, the four University of Minnesota-Crookston students aren’t concerned about landing work after graduation: they’ve had jobs lined up for months.

“I was offered the job in January. I haven’t had to worry about finding one,” says Krueger, a 21-year-old East Grand Forks, Minn., native who will be working as an agronomist at Precision Ag Results in Maddock, N.D. He majored in ag business with an agronomy emphasis.

The four University of Minnesota-Crookston students aren’t alone. Job prospects for soon-to-graduate college seniors with degrees in agriculture and ag-related fields are bright across the Upper Midwest, education and agribusiness officials say.

“It’s really booming,” says Don Cavalier, a counselor in UMC’s Career and Counseling Services. “Demand for people with agricultural knowledge is very strong.”

The jobs being landed by soon-to-graduate ag students commonly pay $35,000 or more annually, he says.

“That’s good for this part of the country,” he says.

The demand for ag employees at least partly reflects prosperity in the area’s ag sector. Crop prices generally have been strong since 2007, while livestock prices have soared to record highs this year.

“Agriculture is a very healthy sector. And we’re always improving our technology” — a combination that encourages hiring, especially college graduates with up-to-date tech skills, says Marty Leiss, of West Central Inc., in Mayville, N.D., and president of the North Dakota Agricultural Association, which represents agribusinesses across the state.

“Technology really gives us (young college grads) an edge,” Langerud says. The 21-year-old native of Audubon, Minn., who majored in agronomy and ag business, will work as an agronomist at West Central Ag Services in Perham, Minn.

He’s known since November that he has job waiting for him there.

Hamel, a 21-year-old Lakota, N.D., native who majored in agronomy and ag business, was offered her job at Prairie Ag Services in Fordville, N.D., about a year ago. She’s worked there part time while finishing up her studies.

Another factor also may be at work in the strong demand for young ag graduates. Agriculture employs a relatively large number of baby-boomers at or near retirement age, which is contributing to employers’ need for young hires, some in ag say.

“I think that has a lot to do with it,” Cavalier says of the strong demand for young college ag grads.

Big-picture supply and demand nationwide definitely is contributing to employers’ need for college ag grads, officials say.

They point to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study which found that, from 2010 to 2015, the agricultural, food and renewable natural resources sector will generate an estimated 54,400 annual openings for individuals with baccalaureate or higher degrees in food, renewable energy and environmental specialties.

However, it’s estimated that only 53,500 qualified graduates will be available each year to fill those 54,400 positions, according to the USDA study.

The combination of factors is a “perfect storm” creating strong demand for college ag graduates, says Cate Sprout, staffing manager for CHS Inc., the Twin Cities-based energy, grains and food cooperative that has grown into one of the nation’s largest businesses.

She heads the cooperative’s campus recruiting efforts.

“It’s not slowing down,” Sprout says of demand for ag employees.

The demand isn’t only for people with four-year degrees, she notes. Graduates of high school, two-year programs and certificate programs also are needed.

Hiring trend ‘heartening’

It’s too soon to put hard numbers on how well soon-to graduate ag students are faring in the job market. Statistics for job placement in 2012 won’t be available until late this year or even next year, college officials say.

But the signs so far are extremely encouraging, they say.

For instance, soon-to-graduate ag students at Montana State University are landing jobs across the state in a wide range of ag-related occupations, says Nora Smith, assistant dean for academic programs in MSU’s College of Agriculture.

At North Dakota State University, an agricultural job fair last fall drew 50 companies, up from 33 a year earlier, says Jill Wilkey, director of the NDSU Career Center.

Postings on NDSU’s website for ag-related jobs soared from 154 in 2010 to 214 in 2011, she says.

“It’s very heartening,” she says of the strong interest in ag students.

Demand keeps growing

Employer interest in ag graduates has been strong for several years, but this year’s interest appears to be the strongest yet, officials say.

Part of the reason may be that the number of new graduates in plant sciences, soil sciences and horticulture keeps declining, while demand for people with skills in those areas continues to rise, a USDA study says.

Another possible explanation, though there’s no hard evidence to support it, is that the stock market crash in 2008 depleted the retirement portfolios of some on-the-verge-of-retirement ag employees and caused them to stay on the job longer than they expected. Now the stock market has recovered, and those employees feel secure enough financially to retire, increasing demand for young replacements, or so the theory goes.

In any case, job prospects for ag students are bright nationwide, not just regionally, in 2011 and 2012, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

“No sector appears stronger than agriculture/food processing with an increase in hires of approximately 14 percent,” the institute says in its Recruiting Trends 2011 and 2012 study.

In contrast, the national job outlook for graduating college students in general isn’t exactly rosy, according to the study

“The competition (for jobs overall) will be fierce. Employer demand falls short of the supply of graduating students,” the study says.

What’s an ‘ag’ job?

Ironically, an article on the Yahoo Education website earlier this past winter pegged agriculture as “the useless degree #1” for job opportunities. That conclusion was based on U.S. Labor of Department projections that the number of farm managers will drop sharply through 2018.

The article drew widespread criticism in agricultural circles. Critics pointed out that the article equated agriculture solely with farm management, while in fact agriculture includes a broad range of positions in soil sciences, ag economics, ag engineering and animal sciences, among many others.

“I would encourage people to do their research” about the wide range of job possibilities in modern agriculture,” says Sprout, with CHS.

Agriculture also needs to attract more qualified people with degrees in areas such as accounting and information technology, she says.

Cavalier, the University of Minnesota-Crookston career counselor, says soon-to-graduate students at his school are landing positions in a wide range of private- and public-sector positions. The jobs are in production agriculture, forestry and ag finance, among many other areas.

About 21 million Americans work in agriculture, according to federal figures.

Is an ag career for you?

A career in agriculture isn’t for everyone, say Krueger, Hamel, Osowski and Langerud, who all have strong farm backgrounds.

They and others involved in agriculture give these general tips for young adults who might be interested in studying ag in college and then pursing ag careers after graduation:

• Don’t study ag if your only interest is a potential job. You need to enjoy agriculture.

• Land internships, ideally with ag companies, early in your college career.

• Be open to living and working in rural communities, especially early in your work career. Many ag jobs exist in metropolitan areas, too, but young ag graduates sometimes need to work their way up the ladder before landing those jobs.

Filling ag positions in small communities can be particularly difficult, Sprout says.

She suggests that young adults interested in an agricultural career learn a second language. Spanish is a top recommendation, followed by Mandarin Chinese. She also suggests studying abroad.

As the Yahoo Education online article about “useless” college degrees indicates, agriculture isn’t always held in high regard by people who work outside it.

Osowki, a 23-year-year-old Grafton, N.D., native who will be scouting fields and selling chemicals for J&R Ag in Grafton, says a few women have questioned why she’s going into agriculture.

“Ag is where I want to be,” she says.

Everyone involved in agriculture agrees that women are playing a bigger, more diverse role in it, though hard numbers are difficult to come by.

Krueger, Hamel and Langerud say they haven’t had any negative feedback from students pursuing nonagricultural careers.

But Hamel says she knows how she’d respond if she ever gets any.

“I’d ask, ‘Have a job?’” she says.

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