Get Hired: What skills and education are ag employers seeking? |

Get Hired: What skills and education are ag employers seeking?

by Kayla Sargent for Tri-State Livestock News
The right rite of passage? By Danielle Schlegel For decades, a college education meant a chance at a better life. A diploma was a symbol of a dream come true—a dream that was out of reach for many, especially those in the ag industry. In recent years, though, a college education has become an expectation, a rite of passage. One of the questions students and their families need to be asking as they consider that first step out of high school, though, rather than “Where do I want to go to college?” is “What are my long-term goals, and what will it take to achieve them?” As any recent college graduate can tell you, a college education can be quite an investment. According to The Institute for College Access and Success, 70 percent of college graduates walk across that stage on graduation day with the help of a student loan, the average principle balance being $28,000. As I made my way through college, I reveled in being surrounded by some of the great brains in the ag industry. The ambition, desire to improve the industry and dedication to the cause are truly inspiring. But the power company doesn’t view “ambition” or “dedication” as an acceptable currency to pay your bill every month. And the federal government expects you to pay your student loan payment every month, whether you’re working for minimum wage, or at the height of your qualifications. While decisions about the future shouldn’t be limited to dollar signs, those discussions should include a realistic view of your investment in your education, and the potential payoff. Try putting together a business plan for college, as you would for borrowing money to buy cows, and see if it pencils out. Granted, there are a lot of unknowns, but writing out those numbers for real will give you a clearer idea of whether or not that’s an investment that makes sense for your long-term goals. Here are some discussion points that I think would benefit everyone as they graduate high school. You may arrive at the conclusion that college is where you want to be, that it is necessary to achieve your goals, and it is a good investment. Just don’t set your sites on a short-term goal that may someday hinder your ability to invest in your long-term goals.
  1. Compare your professional goals to the financial investment of your chosen major. Do the two go hand in hand, or will you be paying for college longer than you will see a professional return on that investment?
  1. Find someone who is working in the field of your major or target professional path that is candid. Ask them tough questions, figure out what their day-to-day workload is really like, and determine if the cost to benefit ratio would be equal for you.
  1. Pave your own path. The popular major or college path doesn’t guarantee jobs for everyone. In fact, it often makes it more difficult, especially if you are looking for jobs alongside your degree peers in the same regional area. There are a finite number of jobs available for the same degree in the same geographical area.
  1. If you’re not sure of what you want to do after college, don’t shy away from working instead of going to school while you figure out what you want to study. Try to find a job that will give you a taste of what you’re considering for a career. Working in your chosen field will give you a much more accurate view of a career than taking classes about it.
  1. If you do choose to go to college and have to work to make it by, pick jobs that will help you today AND tomorrow. Every job can teach you something valuable, but if you can, double up on job experiences that will pay your bills today and are directly related to your professional goals tomorrow.
  1. Even if you’re starting at the bottom of the career you’d like to pursue, look at it as an opportunity. In nearly any field, but ag especially, your network will likely get you farther than your résumé. If you establish a reputation for yourself as hard-working and willing to learn it will carry you farther than a stellar GPA.
It’s no secret that the agriculture industry is a tough one to be a part of, but it should not be harder than it has to be for the next generation that are chomping at the bit to devote themselves to feeding the world. Times are a changin’, and our approach to success should adapt as well, not only for ourselves but also for the vitality of an industry we love so much. Danielle works for Tri-State Livestock News, developing online content and representing us at area events. She recently graduated with a master’s degree in agricultural communications. Paired with a bachelor’s degree in animal science, she has spent more than seven years in academia navigating her way to the ultimate dream of contributing to and being a part of the agriculture industry. Growing up with parents who were first generation removed from the cotton fields of Texas, it is safe to say her path to where she is today wasn’t always clear.

For a lot of people, a career in agriculture starts with on-the-job training as soon as you can walk. But if you weren’t born into it, or want to get into a different segment of the industry, there can be some pretty high hills to climb.

“My best advice is to open your mind to opportunities. The heart of it all is opening up your mind to new things, new ideas, new approaches,” said Barry Dunn, president of South Dakota State University. “It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them or adopt them but it’s really good for a young person to listen to them. The world is changing very rapidly, technology is changing even more rapidly, so I think that’s really important for young people to be open to it.”

Having an open mind in today’s agricultural industry is a crucial quality for a successful career in the field. Employers are seeking candidates with a teachable attitude so that they can quickly adapt to the practices on any given operation.

“Hire the attitude and teach the skills if you want a successful organization. A person with the right attitude can and will learn the skills necessary to do the job right,” said Bill Pelton, a long-time recruiter for many ag companies, including T-Bone Feeders, MoorMan’s Feed Company, Prudential Insurance Company and Westfeeds.

“A degree in animal science, agronomy, precision agriculture, or ag business is a great tool. A major in one and a minor in one of the others is really a powerful preparation for a career in production agriculture,” Dunn said. “Whether it’s at a tech school or junior college or here at South Dakota State, college gives a young person depth and unbiased information that allows them to form a solid foundation. They have enormous preparation in marketing, management and multi-disciplines beyond just field work or livestock care and handling.”

“We sure want them to care about the livestock and the pastures and land,” said Gerald Davis, general manager of Rush Creek Land and Livestock, an operation that runs 7,000 cows on five different ranch units, each with a manager, foreman and several other employees.

“It’s important that they get out and learn as much as they can about the cattle business, be interested in the cattle and learning how to manage them, get some experience and learn to work.”

With 26 years experience as general manager, Davis says work ethic is the most important characteristic that an employee can have. “Having been around agriculture is a preference too, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s all we hire. The big thing is that they understand what a ranch job involves. There’s no set hours and mother nature can throw curves at you. Sometimes there’s long hours and other times, there’s short.”

“Everybody wants to look at a resume to see what skills the job seeker has but without work ethic and a good attitude all the skills in the world won’t make them a good employee,” Pelton said.

While an interview and conversation is the best way to reveal a solid work ethic and forward-thinking attitude, there are some ways to show it on a resume. With today’s rapidly changing consumer, farmers and ranchers need to be willing to learn new ways to meet their needs. Conferences, workshops, field days, tours and involvement in industry organizations show prospective employers you’re committed to helping build the future of the industry.

After earning the job, it is important to continue building on your skills, education and attitude. Like on Rush Creek Land and Livestock, the different levels of employment are usually filled from within the company.

“A college education in agriculture would be nice, but the experience and the work ethic probably have more emphasis. Sure, some college certainly helps as they move along though,” Davis said. “We have enough employees that we try to move them up to a foreman or manager within the company. We don’t necessarily go out and hire them. But there again, if they have a college degree, that’s probably going to help them move along.”


Dunn confirms that this is a trend throughout agriculture. The majority of companies promote from within their current staff and at that point, each degree level can take the employee one step higher.

“Once a person who has a degree kind of gets their feet under them, the degree just propels them into lots of different opportunities,” Dunn said. “With every degree level you get that much more. You may not see it starting out as much, but towards the end of your career, it’ll be huge.”

Building the perfect resume and possessing all of the qualities a great job candidate needs can’t be the stopping point. Taking every opportunity to learn more, whether it be through college, seminars, internships or jobs will positively add to the value of a job candidate.

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