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Published April 04, 2013, 03:17 PM

Demand for college ag grads is strong this spring

Agriculture employs a relatively large number of baby-boomers at or near retirement age, which contributes to employers’ need for news hires, officials say.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

For months, Matt Green has been hearing from companies that are interested in hiring him.

“It just doesn’t let up,” the University of Minnesota-Crookston senior says of employer interest.

Green and many other college students majoring in agriculture or ag-related fields are in high demand again this spring.

“It’s very strong,” Don Cavalier, director of UMC’s Counseling and Career Services says of the demand.

He estimates that 40 to 67 percent of UMC students who will earn ag or ag-related degrees this spring had job offers by late March.

Many of the new hires will earn $35,000 to $39,000 annually, with others earning as much as $69,000 per year, he says.

The new hires will work in a wide range of positions, including agronomy, forestry, sales, crop scouting, precision agriculture and farm management, he says.

At North Dakota State University, demand for ag grads is “very good,” says Career Center director Jill Wilkey.

Ag job postings on the school’s website and the number of ag employers attending the NDSU job fair have both risen from a year ago, she says.

There’s no mystery about why ag grads are in such demand. Times are good financially for U.S. agriculture, despite Midwest drought that began in 2012. National net farm income is expected to reach a record $128 billion in 2013, compared with $113 billion in 2012 and the previous record of $118 billion in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Other factors also are at work in bolstering demand for people earning ag or ag-related degrees.

Agriculture employs a relatively large number of baby-boomers at or near retirement age, which contributes to employers’ need for news hires, officials say. Baby-boomers are the roughly 75 million people born between 1946 and 1964.

Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, which represents Minnesota country elevators and feed mills, is familiar with the need to attract new employees.

The average age of elevator general managers in the state is 56 and many general managers, as well as some other longtime elevator employees, plan to retire within five years, he says.

“It’s a challenge,” he says of identifying and hiring new employees with ag skills.

Many of the available or soon-to-be-available positions are in small communities where young adults aren’t always interested in living, Zelenka says.

And there’s another reason ag businesses want new college grads: as the use of technology in agriculture continues to grows, ag employers increasingly value people with up-to-date skills, ag officials say.

It’s not only people with four-year college ag degrees who are in demand. Potential hires with ag training in high school, one-year, two-year and certificate programs also draw strong interest from ag employers, officials say.

What the experts say

Two university-based organizations that track college hiring generally are upbeat about the value of an ag degree:

•Nationwide, demand for new ag employees is strong, although not quite as robust as it had been, according to the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

The agriculture and natural resources field “has been on a (hiring) tear in recent years with strong year-over-year increases. This year, however, the agricultural sector was hit hard by nationwide drought, higher input costs and lower international demand. But while hiring is expected to slow, the outlook “still appears very positive,” according to the Michigan State organization.

In contrast, the market for ag grads in the Upper Midwest seems even stronger than a year ago, Wilkey says.

She’s uncertain why that’s the case, but notes that the Michigan State University study was issued in November and doesn’t necessarily fully reflect conditions this spring.

“The bottom line is, the ag economy remains very strong. That hasn’t always been the case,” she says.

•Recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees in agriculture and natural resources have a 7 percent unemployment rate, compared with an overall jobless rate of 8.9 percent for all recent grads, based on 2009 and 2010 Census data, according to a 2012 study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

People with an advanced degree in ag and natural resources had a jobless rate of only 2.4 percent, substantially lower than the rate for people with advanced degrees in most other sectors.

The study doesn’t differentiate between jobs in agriculture and jobs in natural resources, an area that includes energy and minerals.

Here’s another set of relevant statistics taken from a U.S. Department of Agriculture study: from 2010 to 2015, the agricultural, food and renewable natural resource sector will generate an estimated 54,400 annual openings for people with baccalaureate or higher degrees in food, renewable energy and environmental specialties.

The study also estimated that only 53,500 qualified graduates will be available each year to fill those 54,400 openings.

‘Passion’ for ag

Cavalier, the UMC career counseling official, tells students to “check out what you really want to do, where you want to do it and what companies you can do with it.”

Most importantly, “See what you have a passion for,” he says. “A lot (of young adults) from around this area do have a passion for agriculture.”

Leonard Will, 24, didn’t grow up in the Upper Midwest, but he has that passion.

Will, raised on a California sheep and cattle farm, graduates this spring with a degree in farm and ranch management from UMC.

His family farmed from 1948 to 2001, when it had to sell the farm because of a government water shutoff.

“I decided I wanted to pursue agriculture, so I moved to Minnesota to study ag. It’s worked out,” Will says.

He’s accepted a position as equipment manager for a farm in Stephen, Minn. He’ll be responsible for making sure the equipment is maintained and serviced, and also will operate it.

“I’ll be kind of an all-around hand,” he says.

In addition to his job as equipment manager, he’ll rent 80 acres, which he will farm himself, from the farmer who employs him.

“I’m pretty happy about that,” he says.

His best advice for people interested in an agricultural career: “Listen, listen, listen. Listen more than you talk,” Will says.

‘Take your choice’

Green, 22, has passion for ag, too. A fourth-generation farmer, he grew up in his family grain, dairy and beef operation.

He has a job offer, from a dairy marketing company, but he’s planning to return to the family farm after graduation in May.

Though the idea of working off the farm “has crossed my mind, I would definitely miss the livestock,” he says.

He’s also interested in going to graduate school and someday teaching at the college level.

If so, he would teach from fall to spring and work on the farm from spring to fall.

Green has encouraged his sister, a senior in high school, to study ag in college.

“It (job demand) is so strong right now, especially in agronomy, ag business and farm management,” says Green, who has a triple major in agronomy, ag business and ag systems (farm/ranch) management.

“If you have any kind of ag background, you’ll be put ahead of people (job applicants) who don’t,” he says.

Some of the job opportunities are in rural areas, some are in cities, he says.

“There are (job) openings all across the nation. You can take your choice. You can stay in northwest Minnesota (where UMC is located). You can go across the nation, the East Coast. You can even go internationally,” he says.

“I really encourage people to check out the opportunities in agriculture.”

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