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