It may seem like a daunting task for the millions of college graduates on the hunt for their first professional job. According to a recent study from Burning Glass Technologies, a labor-market analytics firm, during the COVID-19 pandemic, hiring in the U.S. declined 45 percent for college graduates seeking entry-level positions.
The news is more favorable for graduates starting careers within the agriculture industry. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and Purdue University shows a strong demand for new college graduates with degrees in agricultural programs. In the U.S., new college graduates can expect approximately 60,000 job opportunities annually through 2025, representing a 2.5 percent growth from the previous five years.
Think beyond traditional farming and ranching. Agricultural careers span more than 200 options, including natural resources, biology and genetics, engineering, chemistry, food production, sales and marketing, and the list continues.
In the U.S., where the agricultural workforce represents 22 million people, one in every 12 American jobs depends on agriculture.
Here in the Peach State, where agriculture continues to rank as the No. 1 industry, more than 400,000 ag jobs infuse $76 billion annually into the economy.
What’s at the top of the help wanted list? The report estimates openings in management and business and science and engineering will represent 42 percent and 31 percent, respectively, of the new jobs in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources, and the environment.
Employment opportunities in food and biomaterials production will represent 13 percent. Slightly less at 14 percent are new jobs in the education, communication, government sectors.
The NIFA and Perdue report also forecast employer demand will exceed the supply of available graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher in agriculture-related careers.
For more than a century, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC) has provided unique, hands-on learning opportunities in agricultural studies. Through the years, ABAC’s academic offerings have expanded to include bachelor’s degrees in arts and sciences, nursing and health sciences, and business.
The School of Agriculture and Natural Resources (SANR) continues to produce ABAC’s highest number of graduates. During the 2020-2021 academic year, SANR students represented approximately 34 percent of the college’s total enrollment.
The SANR offers Bachelor of Science degree programs in agribusiness, agricultural communication, agricultural education, agriculture, environmental horticulture, and natural resource management.
“I always call it a ‘win’ if a student comes back from an internship with a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, a better understanding or confirmation of their career goals, and a job offer.” — Suzanne Bentley
Combined with its small class sizes and quality instruction, SANR students benefit from various outdoor learning laboratories, including the J.G. Woodroof Farm, a 400-acre working farm with cultivated and grazing land, turfgrass and research plots, and greenhouse and nursery facilities.
“In these learning environments, students receive practical, hands-on experience,” says Dr. Mark Kistler, Dean of SANR. “This helps them grasp the concepts and principles taught in the classroom. They can put actual theory into practice. The result is a well-rounded, work-ready graduate.”
Additional outdoor facilities include the Beef Unit, ABAC Stables, Turfgrass Teaching Green, Turfgrass Teaching and Research Plots, Forest Lakes Golf Course, Greenhouse and Nursery Learning Lab, Nature Study Area, and the Langdale Forest.
Career-based internships represent an additional opportunity for SANR students to put classroom instruction into practice.
Except for natural resource management majors, all SANR students must complete at least one supervised internship.
“An internship allows students to learn more about opportunities within the industry,” says Suzanne Bentley, SANR academic and career coordinator. “I always call it a ‘win’ if a student comes back from an internship with a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, a better understanding or confirmation of their career goals, and a job offer.”
Bentley says internships are mutually beneficial for the student and employer.
“Through an internship, employers gain access to our students who are not yet available to work full time but will soon enter the industry,” she says. “It allows the employer to introduce and train students and serves as an excellent ‘trial run’ for both the student and employers.”
The end goal of an internship is to open the door for future career opportunities. Bentley says, “If an internship doesn’t lead to full-time employment, I am a resource for students and employers looking for potential graduates and interns.”
“Any job that deals with agricultural technology is going to be in high demand. Data drives agriculture from the technology in the tractors and equipment, and it allows farmers to be precise in the application of fertilizer, herbicides, and water.” –Dr. Mark Kistler
Future of Ag
According to Kistler, the agriculture industry has changed tremendously in the past 10 to 20 years. Advancements in technology, including precision agriculture and genetic engineering, along with trade and labor policies, natural disasters, and social media, have all impacted agriculture.
With this continual shift, Kistler says the SANR makes the necessary curriculum adjustments to meet industry demands.
“Advancements in technology will continue to impact our programs,” he says. “All of our degrees and the associated courses are continually evaluated to make sure they are relevant to the current and future trends in the agricultural and natural resources industries.”
Enhancing STEM learning for K-12 has helped propel interest in agricultural careers.
“Agriculture is STEM,” says Kistler. “Every aspect of the agricultural and natural resources industries includes science, technology, engineering, and math.”
The U.S. currently has millions of unfilled STEM jobs, and a 2019 federal report estimates 3.5 million STEM jobs will need to be staffed by 2025.
“Any job that deals with agricultural technology is going to be in high demand,” Kistler says. “Data drives agriculture from the technology in the tractors and equipment, and it allows farmers to be precise in the application of fertilizer, herbicides, and water.”
Kistler says the agricultural technology and systems management track within the Bachelor of Science in Agriculture is a growing pathway and produces graduates for the high-demand career field.
“Since technology is an important aspect of both the agricultural and natural resources industries, it’s weaved throughout all of our degree programs,” says Kistler.
Closing the Gender Gap
Once considered a male-dominated industry, the number of females seeking agriculture degrees is on the rise. In 1980, only one-third of all agricultural science degrees in the U.S. went to females. Forty years later, women make up more than half the graduates.
The gender shift is evident within SANR’s enrollment, with females representing 42 percent, up from 24 percent in 2011. New programs, including the Bachelor of Science in agricultural communication and agricultural education, have heavily skewed female enrollment with 78 percent and 71 percent, respectively. Other degree programs with a higher proportion of female students include agribusiness and agriculture, 37 percent and 45 percent, respectively.
Head of the Class
ABAC’s Bachelor of Science in agricultural education is moving to the head of the class. Approved by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission in 2018, the popular program jumped from 26 to 212 students within three years.
“For many years, there has been a national shortage of agricultural education teachers, and Georgia is no different,” Kistler says. “Before ABAC’s agricultural education degree, only the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University had programs. Combined, they couldn’t fill half of the open ag education positions in Georgia. ABAC now has the largest agricultural education program in the Southeast.”
Georgia’s schools have offered agricultural courses at middle and high schools for decades and are now expanding to elementary schools.
As part of a three-year pilot program that started in 2019, students in more than 20 elementary schools across the state are receiving lessons on animal and plant science and available career options in agriculture and natural resources.
ABAC is the first program in the nation to offer instruction to prepare graduates to teach agricultural classes at the pre-kindergarten through the fifth-grade level, adding to its agricultural teacher certification program for grades sixth through 12.
Kistler says enrollment within the SANR continues to expand, and students are coming from across the Southeast.
“Most of our students come from Georgia; however, we are now seeing more from Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina,” he says. “ABAC’s tuition is extremely economical, and our students benefit from small class sizes, interaction with the faculty, and our hands-on approach to education.”
Photos by Landon Rowe, ABAC