Demand for food and fiber is booming as world population grows at an exponential rate. Ironically, the United States – the No. 1 exporter of agriculture products – is facing critical shortages of agriculture workers.
Leading domestic life science companies need to hire at least 1,000 trained ag scientists by 2015 to help meet changing global needs, according to a 2013 study by the Coalition for a Sustainable Agricultural Workforce. Nearly half of those hires need to hold doctoral degrees.
Despite high demand for these scientists, not enough university students are being trained fast enough in disciplines such as plant science and crop breeding, said Rogers Leonard, LSU AgCenter associate vice chancellor for plant and soil science programs. Many students are simply unaware of these opportunities for employment, partly because of stereotypes of agriculture in popular culture.
“A career in agriculture is not just about picking cotton or chopping weeds,” Leonard told a group of high schoolers at a recent youth field day. “Science and technology drive the new agriculture today.”
Even among children who grow up on farms, however, there has been a degradation of students wanting to go into agriculture, he said. Longer lifespans mean American farmers have gotten older and older in recent decades – in Louisiana, the average age of a farmer is 58.5, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.
Because farmers don’t hand over the reins to the family business as soon as they once did, their children often look beyond agriculture to find employment, Leonard said.
The ag industry is running short on human capital at a time it is under pressure to be more efficient, which requires scientific innovation. The CSAW study reports “the pipeline of graduates … isn’t as full as it needs to be” and companies “anticipate challenges in finding quality applicants.”
Student recruitment at universities is part of fixing that problem. Incoming freshmen who are pondering majors need to know about the diverse opportunities available in agriculture, said Bill Richardson, LSU vice president for agriculture and dean of the College of Agriculture.
The college has renewed its focus on recruitment this semester, with representatives traveling throughout Louisiana to reach as many students as possible.
Shrinking workforce jeopardizes future growth
Richardson is also working to form an industry advisory council whose input will help the college update undergraduate and graduate curricula to reflect evolving workforce needs. Communication and problem solving skills are just as significant as research and scientific knowledge, he said.
“Getting feedback from both local and national agriculture companies will help us better serve our students,” Richardson said. “It’s important to prepare them for the multitude of careers they’re capable of pursuing. Our graduates are very bright scientists, but they also need to be able to think, speak and write effectively using current technologies.”
Such abilities put people with doctorates, who tend to specialize, a step ahead when applying for jobs.
“Companies are looking for more of a generalist – someone who has very broad experience, understands concepts and can apply that education to different areas,” Leonard said.
That kind of background is in demand, he said, because agriculture’s biggest challenge is wide reaching – doubling global food production by 2050. The task is so daunting that industry is competing with academia for trained scientists.
If a company can’t hire a suitable young graduate, it can make the job offer more attractive to recruit mid-career faculty from universities, Leonard said. When faculty leave to take those jobs, they create a vacuum of people to teach and train students – the next generation of ag scientists.
A shrinking workforce jeopardizes the innovation needed in today’s agriculture industry.
“It has to happen through technology, equipment and a broad knowledge base,” Leonard said. “The people who are going to be meeting the challenge of food security over the next few decades are the ones being trained right now. We are hopeful that if we develop industry partnerships to define their expectations and needs, then the roadmap to success will be clear.”