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home : most recent : statewide implications July 27, 2017

7/4/2017 6:49:00 AM
Indiana agricultural jobs don't attract enough STEM college graduates

Katie Stancombe, Tribune-Star CNHI News Indiana

Growing up, Greg Schneider was no country boy.

“I grew up in the suburbs,” Schneider said. “I never even touched a cow until I was 18 years old."

Despite his non-agrarian upbringing, the farm life always caught Schneider’s attention, planting a desire to learn more. But when he signed up for an agriculture class in high school, he faced push back.

“The counselor was resistant to place me in the class because I didn’t live on a farm,” Schneider said. “But I was persistent. To say it changed the course of my life would be completely accurate.”

That seed of interest flourished into a lifestyle and career; now Schneider lives on a 60-acre farm with his family and teaches agriculture at Greensburg Community Schools.

Although Schneider sees a similar interest in his students, recent studies show that the number of people entering the agriculture industry can’t keep up with growing demand in the workplace.

Nearly 58,000 jobs open in America’s food and agriculture industry each year. But on average only 35,400 new graduates with applicable degrees fill those positions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That leaves roughly 40 percent of available agriculture jobs unfilled, a fact that has many agriculturists asking, “Now what?”

Raising awareness

“Nobody buys anything until they’re aware of it. So we have to promote why it’s important to consider all of the great opportunities in the agbiosciences,” said Dan Dawes, director for strategy and innovation at AgriNovus Indiana, an initiative to promote entrepreneurship in Indiana agriculture.

Agbiosciences encompasses aspects of food, agriculture and the life sciences. It often utilizes talent in fields of chemistry, plant sciences and engineering.

Dawes, who is dedicated to the growth of the agriculture industry in Indiana, said things aren’t looking so great right now.

“We are going to need more in terms of electronic engineers or data scientists, business analysts and people with finance backgrounds,” Dawes said. “Those kinds of jobs are tending to get consumed or pulled away from us into other areas.”

From 2003 to 2014, Indiana experienced a 22 percent increase in core agbioscience occupations -- jobs that deal directly with food production and agriculture. But that same sector has been unable to attract workers in STEM fields (sciences, technology, engineering and math), according to an AgriNovus study.

Dawes said low numbers in those areas result from STEM-educated Hoosiers not knowing about career opportunities in agriculture.

“The large majority of students that go into biology anticipate that they’re going to be going into the medical field,” he said. “But not all of them necessarily make it.”

As the science of food production becomes increasingly complex, more opportunities will be available for people trained in STEM, Dawes concluded.

Purdue Extension director Jason Henderson agreed, pointing out that agriculture is more than just working on a farm.

“It’s using computers, it’s using sensors, high-end technology,” Henderson said. “Working with genetics and high-end science -- you’re just doing it in an agricultural context.”

Increasing opportunity

“While agriculture has definitely evolved over the years through advancements in technology and science, often times the general public’s perception of it is still rooted in the past,” Schneider said.

He knows from experience that you don’t need an agricultural background to find a job in that industry. The Greensburg teacher hopes he can show his non-agricultural students the wide range of agbiosciences opportunities available.

“A farmer needs scientists, engineers, mechanics, veterinarians, sales people and a host of other individuals to help them do their job,” Schneider said. “With this in mind, it is paramount that we recruit and retain talent in Indiana’s agriculture workforce.”

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