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Wildlife and Fisheries student Cassie Auxt networks at the SDSU College of Ag & Bio Career Fair. (Amanda Radke/Special to Agweek)

Ag students seek jobs at SDSU career fair

BROOKINGS, S.D. — It may only be October, but for college students preparing to graduate in December 2017 or May 2018, it's crunch time.

It's time to job hunt.

Each year, South Dakota State University hosts an agricultural-based career fair aimed at connecting employers with students for potential agricultural internships and full-time careers.

"This year, we had 143 companies at the career fair with opportunities for animal science, agronomy, dairy science, precision agriculture, food science, agriculture science and technology, agriculture business, communications and more," says Matt Tollefson, SDSU career coach for the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. "Nearly 900 students attended the event, and we had 40 employers stick around an extra day or two to conduct interviews. Students absolutely lined up jobs from this event."

For Kelbi Dean, a senior agricultural business student from Artesian, S.D., the career fair was one of the single most important things she's done during her college career.

"Last year, I attended the career fair and earned a summer internship with Cargill," Dean says. "I loved the opportunity to work directly with producers and discuss how they could best market their grain and get the best price for their crops."

The internship was based out of Minnesota, and at the conclusion of the summer, Dean was offered a full-time position at Cargill post-graduation.

"I'm really looking forward to my job with Cargill, and it has definitely taken the stress off the job hunt during these final months of college," says Dean, who will graduate in May 2018.

While some students lock in opportunities early in the fall, for others, the hunt is just beginning. Sam Johnson is a senior agriculture business student with plans to graduate in May 2018. The Glennville, Minn., native is open to any and every opportunity; he just has to find the right fit first.

"My dream job would be in marketing and promoting agriculture," Johnson says. "Whether that's promoting a brand or product, that's really where my interests lie."

Johnson has had previous internships with Dupont, Ardent Mills and Land O'Lakes. This school year, he's serving as the student coordinator for SDSU's College of Agriculture & Biological Science's Office of Career Development, and a major component of his position has been helping to organize the career fair.

"The three main components of this project included managing and coordinating student volunteers, developing the online app and creating a career fair map for students and employers to reference," Johnson says.

While Johnson was busy running the event, he wasn't too worried about making the rounds at the career fair. After all, he had already visited with most of the companies during the planning process in the weeks leading up to the event.

"Being able to connect with these recruiters right off the bat has been a huge benefit to helping run the career fair," he says. "On campus, seniors are feeling a lot of stress as they figure out what they're going to do after graduation. However, this career fair shows me that there are a ton of internships and jobs available. Networking at this event is definitely an important opportunity for agricultural students to take advantage of."

While the job hunt may be stressful at times, agricultural students can feel confident in their odds of securing employment in their chosen field. According to USDA's Economic Research Service, there were 21 million full- and part-time jobs related to the agricultural and food sectors in 2015, including 2.6 million on-farm jobs. Jobs in agriculture and food-related industries supported another 18.4 million jobs, with the vast majority in food service.

What's more, USDA ERS predicts that between 2015 and 2020, there will be 57,900 average annual openings for graduates with bachelor's or higher degrees in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources or the environment. Half the opportunities will be in management and business, 27 percent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, 15 percent in sustainable food and biomaterials production and 12 percent in education, communication and governmental services.

"Even though the agricultural economy is down, agricultural companies are still hiring and expanding operations," Tollefson says. "There are jobs to fill and opportunities to explore for students in agriculture. We're seeing huge growth in the dairy science, precision agriculture, food science and agriculture science and technology fields. It's an exciting time to be in agriculture."

Not every major is a slam dunk, however. Cassie Auxt, a senior wildlife and fisheries student from Duncannon, Penn., says for every job available in her field of study, there are thousands of applicants.

"This is a very competitive field, so networking is incredibly important," says Auxt, who has served previous internships with Ducks Unlimited and USDA's Wildlife Services.

Although the wildlife and fisheries students have to compete for fewer jobs, Tollefson says last year, his students in that area of study enjoyed extremely successful placement post graduation.

"Our December 2016 data from our student placement survey shows the wildlife and fisheries students had 100 percent placement from SDSU, but May 2016 was 65 percent, which is fairly normal for that field," says Tollefson.

No matter the major, what does it take to stand out in a crowd of 900 students at a career fair? For Matt Altman, a representative from JBS, it's all about how a student approaches the booth and what their resume reveals about them.

"We have a great working relationship with the university, and this is the best way to find stand-out students for careers in our facilities," says Altman, who began his own career right out of college with JBS. "For students attending the career fair, first impressions matter. We are looking for students who are confident and easy to talk to. Then it comes down to internship experience, involvement at school and academic performance."