Not enough agricultural scientists are being trained, according to a new study from the Coalition for a Sustainable Agricultural Workforce (CSAW).
As a result, major ag industry companies such as Monsanto, Bayer Crop Science and Dow Agro Services are concerned that they will not be able to find qualified applicants for the new jobs they will create over the next few years.
And ultimately, agricultural experts said, the shortage of scientists could have a negative impact on the ability to feed the world’s growing population.
Between 2012 and 2015, the U.S. agricultural workforce is expected to grow by 6.3 percent, to a total of 59,000 workers, with 1,000 of those jobs going to highly-educated new scientists. The most important and top-paying jobs require graduate degrees, including Ph.D.’s. The increase is in addition to replacement hires.
The specialized areas with the most demand are plant breeding/genetics, plant protection and plant sciences. Of those jobs, 46 percent will require doctoral degrees and 27 percent master’s degrees.
As of today, there are not enough students in the pipeline to meet the total demand, according to the CSAW study.
Elaine Turner, dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) at the University of Florida, said she is not surprised by the findings of the CSAW study.
“There have been several similar reports by different groups that have come to the same
conclusion - that we have a gap between demand and the available talent for positions that are either opening up because experienced agricultural scientists are retiring or for positions that are opening up in various parts of the industry that need to grow the number of people in the workforce,” Turner said.
Because of the growing evidence of a worsening talent shortage, Turner said, “We’ve actually been talking about it at the national level among land grant universities and colleges of agriculture and related sciences for several years.”
Despite the nationally-respected reputation UF and other Florida land grant universities have developed over the years, Turner said, it appears that fewer students in the state have an interest in the field.
“What we’re finding is that because Florida is a fairly urban state, a lot of the students that come to University of Florida, particularly as freshmen, don’t have a lot of agricultural-related experience or context, so they are not automatically gravitating toward programs in some of the more traditional areas of study, like plant sciences,” Turner said.
As a result, she said, UF now tries to market and promote ag-related majors such as plant sciences or plant breeding/genetics as having good job prospects and global importance in terms of the growing worldwide demand for food.
“And we’re finding that we have marketing to do at younger and younger ages to have students understand that these are exciting academic areas that also present great job opportunities,” Turner said.
Ellen Bergfeld, CEO of the American Society for Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America, two of the organizations involved in the public-private CSAW coalition that performed the study and is now working to increase awareness of the issue, said the biggest challenge the agriculture industry faces today is that it is not “mainstream” enough to generate the level of attention and interest required to solve the problem.
“Much of the American public is just not aware of the careers available in the agricultural sciences,” Bergfeld said.
Furthermore, she said, somewhat ironically - given the consumer interest in food TV - more young people are disconnected from food and how it is produced. “It’s a bit of a joke when people like me get together around a table that the general population is not aware of where their food comes from,” she said. “They’re not aware of what happens before it arrives at the grocery store. They just know that it is readily available.”
That underlying reality means that the collective efforts of organizations such as CSAW are vital to bringing together ag businesses, universities and the federal and state governments to recruit and train in the field, Turner said.
“And part of doing that is training people to work across different disciplines and take advantage of the expertise of others, while also giving them communication and leadership skills in addition to their agricultural knowledge,” she said.
The good news, Bergfeld said, is that there is growing awareness of the problem and increased focus on finding a solution, which is why CSAW came together as a coalition.
For example, there are now discussions with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in the White House and also members of Congress to get increased funding for land grant universities to increase student populations, including in graduate schools.
“That was what really drove doing the survey,” Bergfeld said. “We wanted to have real data to show that there are not enough people coming into the pipeline and that they are not being trained in the ways the industry needs and is seeking.”
For prospective students, she said, the message is that the industry is growing and there is more demand than there is supply. “And these jobs pay very well,” she said.
For more information on the CSAW study, visit www.sustainable-ag-workforce.org and click on “Facts.”