Ag enrollment up, demand for graduates

Heather Hamilton
for Tri-State Livestock News

Four major factors are driving the demand for graduates of colleges of agriculture between 2010 and 2015, according to a USDA and Purdue University report, “Employment Opportunities for College Graduates.” These include macroeconomic conditions and retirements, consumer preferences for safe and nutritious food, energy and environment policy choices and global market shifts in population, income, food and energy.

Demand is projected to be highest in management and business related fields according to the report, with an estimated 25,700 annual job openings for management and business positions in the food system, renewable energy and environmental related career fields. Science and engineering graduates will be greeted with over 14,600 annual job openings in occupations including animal pathologists, biological engineers, human nutritionists and food scientists. Agricultural and Forestry production round out the top three strongest job areas with over 7,900 annual openings for crop consultants, veterinarians, precision agriculture specialists and land use managers.

In response to this demand, college of agriculture enrollment rates are up across the board in western universities. It all adds up to an exciting time to be studying agriculture and preparing for a career under the broad umbrella that comprises the agriculture industry.

South Dakota State University (SDSU) Dean of the College of Agricultural and Biological Sciences Barry Dunn explained that SDSU enrollment as a whole is steady, and the college of agriculture is up this fall with roughly 2,250 undergraduate and 325 graduate students.

“We will also be up, and will again break our previous record for enrollment with 2,100 students in our college,” added University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources Associate Dean of Student Affairs Dann Husmann of the 2012 fall semester.

University of Wyoming (UW) College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Associate Dean James Wangberg noted UW has also been on a steady enrollment increase in their College of Ag for the last several years, both in the undergraduate and graduate areas of study.

“There hasn’t been one area of obvious popularity within the college, but rather several leaders in enrollment. One is the family and consumer sciences program, which includes human nutrition, child and family studies and textiles and merchandising. All of those programs are currently at capacity. Additional strong programs include ecosystem science management, range and soil sciences, and molecular biology,” noted Wangberg.

Husmann said UNL students are enrolling in both traditional animal science, agribusiness and ag-economics programs and in more up and coming areas, such as food technology for companion animals, forensic science, biochemistry, plant biology and a newly developed microbiology programs. A professional golf management program is also a more recent, and popular, area of study for UNL students that results in jobs locally and internationally.

“Two areas that continue to grow and are always popular are our animal science and plant science/agronomy programs. The one program that is possibly growing the fastest is our ag systems technology program. I call it, ‘ag engineering light,’ and it is focused on precision agriculture, farm machinery and technology. In the last couple years it has grown from a couple dozen students to approximately 100 this year,” explained Dunn of SDSU’s program enrollment.

With companies including Raven Industries, a leader in precision agriculture, located a mere 50 miles from Brookings, SD, students graduating in the ag systems technology field of study are in high demand.

“As a whole we cannot graduate our college of ag students fast enough to keep up with demand. For example, every dairy science student we graduated in May, 2012 had jobs in the fall of 2011, and they had multiple job offers to choose from,” said Dunn.

The USDA, Purdue University Report stated that as a whole, from 2010-15, five percent more college graduates with expertise in agricultural and food systems, renewable energy, and the environment will be needed compared to 2005-10. There will be a projected 54,400 annual openings in agriculture related career fields, with a shortfall of graduates in top priority career areas.

“We are not producing enough graduates for the jobs out there,” stated Husmann. “Last year we had our largest career fair ever on campus, and employers were hungry for our students both at the sophomore and junior levels for internships, and as seniors for employment opportunities. The jobs are out there, and we’ve refocused some of our recruitment efforts the last six or seven years into talking to high school students and making them aware of the vast amount of careers in agriculture, food science and natural resources, and that has paid off huge for us, and will continue to help us in graduating students to fill those positions.”

UW is also working to meet the ever-increasing demand for ag-graduates, partially through tailoring programs to meet new job-demands head on.

“With all the mining and energy development in and around Wyoming, one up and coming area of relevance and importance is land reclamation and restoration, which we’ve implemented into the university with a land reclamation and restoration program. This program produces graduates who are knowledgeable about the restoration of land, combating invasive species, and successfully reclaiming lands disturbed as a result of mining or other activity. This is currently an emerging program that is becoming larger in response to meeting the needs for that skill set in Wyoming and the entire region,” noted Wangberg.

For anyone considering studying agriculture, all three universities strongly encourage a campus visit as a starting place.

“We take them to where the research is happening, provide them the opportunity to meet with instructors and professors to talk about their areas of interest, and work to focus their potential career choice as the centerpoint of how the campus visit is coordinated with exploration into other areas of potential interest also included,” explained Husmann, with agreement from UW and SDSU.

Wangberg noted that he also encourages students not to rule out an ag-based field of study simply because they do not come from an ag background as the opportunities within the college of agriculture are vast.

“Ag is such a broad field – it goes everywhere from microbiology and food safety all the way over to the health of our food supply. I like to work at attracting students that come from a more urban background as well as those who were raised on a farm or ranch because there are so many opportunities for both within our region and globally,” added Dunn in agreement.

With the fall semester just starting at all three universities, record college of ag enrollment numbers are a positive start to meeting the broad and increasing demand for college of agriculture graduates in traditional and emerging careers located worldwide.