There’s a shortage of grower talent in our industry — that’s no secret. But a recent employment outlook led by Purdue University’s Agriculture Department, with support from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), reported 57,900 ag-related jobs are slated to open annually across the U.S. over the next five years. With an average of 35,400 new U.S. graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher in agriculture-related fields, that makes us 22,500 people short of the jobs available.
So not only do we have to compete with industries outside of agriculture for highly skilled job candidates, but our fellow farmers are also hurting for qualified people to fill their empty positions. It’s time to get creative with grower recruitment, and that means opening up the realm of possibilities beyond the traditional channels of four-year, land grant universities.
It doesn’t help matters when institutions like Cal-Poly, long heralded as a leader in producing quality horticulture graduates with much sought-after, hands-on experience, propose bulldozing research greenhouses, orchards and crop fields and replacing them with student housing and other improvements. A massive effort is underway by students, faculty and alumni to save or rebuild the facilities to protect the caliber of agricultural education available there.
In a recent conversation I had with Four Star Greenhouse’s Dennis Crum, Greenhouse Grower’s 2013 Head Grower Of The Year, discussing the shortage of qualified growers, Dennis made a poignant observation. He asked, beyond the 30- and 40-something growers currently rising through the ranks, where will the next generation of growers come from? Who are they and are they out there?
I think they are, but it’s clear that the supply doesn’t equal the current demand from the traditional channels we’re used to finding our horticulture grads. Sure, there’s a rising number of high school kids getting into ag programs (FFA membership is at a record 600,000 members nationally), studying everything from aquaponics and indoor food production to ag policy. And perhaps these kids will be the next wave of students at our ag schools. But to supplement those numbers, we need to start pursuing graduates who don’t have ag backgrounds and entice them into careers in horticulture with the benefits they’ll find in this industry.
One distinguishing quality of millennials is that career satisfaction is less about the money and more about making a difference. According to the 2015 Deloitte Millennial Survey 2015, 6 out of 10 millennials cited their company’s sense of purpose as part of the reason they chose their job.
Perfect for horticulture! Work in this industry producing food and flowers makes a big difference in people’s lives.
“Not only will those who study agriculture be likely to get well-paying jobs upon graduation, they will also have the satisfaction of working in a field that addresses some of the world’s most pressing challenges,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in the NIFA report.
Further, one of the biggest issues facing millennials is unemployment. In May, 13.6 percent of this generation was unemployed, according to the national youth advocacy organization Generation Opportunity’s May 2015 Millennial Jobs Report. Newsweek reported in late May that millennials make up around 40 percent of unemployed individuals in America.
“Those receiving degrees in agricultural fields can expect to have ample career opportunities,” Vilsack said. “These jobs will only become more important as we continue to develop solutions to feed more than 9 billion people by 2050.”
So how do we attract young people to horticulture, including those who may already be deferring student loans? Mention that through technical certification programs like the Circle Fresh Institute and other entities, they can change careers without going back to school. Appeal to that sense of making a difference and their interest in helping feed growing populations through sustainable growing systems like greenhouses. Perhaps, like the gardeners of the future, who our breeder friends hope to attract with “gateway to gardening” plants like veggies, our “gateway to growing” producers will start in vegetable production.
And if the satisfaction of helping feed the world doesn’t get them, maybe aspects like their love of technology, the blend of science and art to create beauty, the entrepreneurial spirit and the lure of working at an actively challenging, well-paying career without having to be chained to a desk all day will do the trick.
It’s a great life — and you live it. Now go tell people!