Agriculture colleges struggle to meet changing industry needs

by Jennifer Joyner (JJoyner@nwabj.com) 92 views 

In Arkansas, about 44,000 farms brought in $1.3 billion in net income for 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, and as the farmer population ages, the industry will need new blood to prop up agriculture as a substantial piece of the state’s economy.

The University of Arkansas’ Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences reported record enrollment this fall, but agricultural higher education programs nationwide need more growth in order to fill a widening talent gap, according to a government report.

The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture projects that job openings in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and the environment will dramatically outpace the number of college graduates in those fields between now and 2020 – adding about 58,000 jobs annually, while graduating only about 35,000 college students per year, according to a press release from Bumpers College.

Donna Graham, director of employer relations at Bumpers College, said industry leaders often talk about needing more talent. In its fourth year, the school’s Career Fair of Agriculture, Food and Life Sciences has almost doubled in size, with 30 companies participating this fall, according to the UA Career Development Center.

Arkansas is second nationwide in poultry broiler production, according to the Arkansas Farm Bureau, and industry jobs comprise a large part of the opportunities in Northwest Arkansas and also nationwide, Graham said.

“It’s safe to say our poultry science students in general are able to find internships and work throughout college, and then they’re in the workforce,” Graham said.

Poultry companies located in Northwest Arkansas are Tyson Foods, America’s largest poultry and meat processor, and George’s, both based in Springdale, and Simmons Foods of Siloam Springs. The state’s agricultural industry is also bolstered by the presence of Wal-Mart Stores of Bentonville as the world’s largest food retailer, in addition to the fact that Arkansas produces more rice than any other state and ranks third in production of cotton nationwide, 10th in soybean production and 12th in beef cattle inventory, according to the Farm Bureau.

Graham said the demand for agri workers will continue in Arkansas and nationwide, “as the world population continues to grow, and we try to do more with less.”

Technology and the development of genetically enhanced crops have helped farmers get more out of their yield throughout the years, increasing the number of people one farmer could feed from 26 in 1960, to 154 now, according to the Farm Bureau. However, the burden on American farmers will only increase, as experts predict farmers will feed 9 billion people by 2050, according to the bureau.

To Bumpers College students, that means job security. The college’s graduates have a relatively high job placement rate. Bumpers College bachelor’s degree recipients have an 85% career placement rate, according to a UA survey of 500 former students in 2015. Its master’s degree recipients have an 82% placement rate and its employment rate for doctorate graduates is 100%. The employment placement data for alumni of all UA colleges is 60% for those with a bachelor’s degree, 65% with a master’s degree and 86% with a doctorate.

UPWARD ENROLLMENT TREND
In addition to reaching a record high for enrollment this fall, Bumpers College reports a steady student population increase since 2009. However, the pace lags behind the university’s overall enrollment.

About 2,200 undergraduate and graduate students are attending Bumpers College this fall, showing an average annual increase of 2.8% since 2009, while the UA saw an average annual increase of 4.6%. Overall enrollment reached 27,194 this fall, according to the school.

Robby Edwards, director of communications at the Bumpers College, said one reason the agriculture industry is not growing faster can be tied to younger generations’ lack of interest in farming. The average age for the Arkansas farmer has been on an upward path in recent years, and it is now age 57, according to the Farm Bureau.

While steps have been taken to address the shortage of young people in the farming industry, Edwards said, there’s still work to be done, and part of the Bumper College’s solution is emphasizing the vital need of natural-resource-related professions.

“One of our catchphrases is ‘Careers That Matter,’” Edwards said. “Everybody needs food, and we try to stress the importance of the industry.”

BREAKDOWN OF GROWING FIELDS
About half of the 58,000 expected job openings per year will be on the business and management side of the agricultural/food industry, according to the USDA. One-third will be within math, science, technology and engineering fields. The remaining jobs are expected to be in sustainable food and biomaterials production, education, communication and government services.

“STEM areas are expected to grow with stronger job markets for plant scientists, food scientists, sustainable biomaterials specialists, water resources scientists and engineers, precision agriculture specialists and farm-animal veterinarians,” according to the UA press release. “A strong market is also expected for e-commerce managers and marketing agents, ecosystem managers, agricultural educators, crop advisors and pest control specialists.”

With a 40% gap between projected jobs and graduates, employers might look to experts in related fields like biology, business administration, engineering, education, communication and consumer sciences, according to the release. However, the Bumpers College contends that those employers would prefer experts in agriculture, food and the environment.

“Bumpers College provides career-focused education in these areas with exceptional opportunities for hands-on experience and with a breadth and depth unmatched in the state,” Michelle Pribbernow, coordinator of undergraduate student recruitment, said in the press release. “Additionally, as these fields are in high demand, we have many scholarship opportunities to help students enter these careers. There are also opportunities to support scholarships as we recruit more and more students to fill these positions.”

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