Outside the classroom, there is a major push for experiential learning activities. Internships are promoted literally as soon as a student gets to campus. Study abroad opportunities have increased dramatically, as has student participation in these. Purdue now offers a leadership development certificate program where students work with a mentor to develop a personal leadership plan focused on self-leadership, interpersonal leadership, team leadership and community leadership. This plan is executed outside the classroom through extra-curricular activities and other nontraditional learning opportunities. Undergraduate research and honors courses/programs are stressed more than ever before. Opportunities for developing leadership skills abound. Of course, any academic program worth its salt is going to be working on getting better all the time. That said, most of the programs we are familiar with have been working hard at doing an even better job of preparing the next generation of agribusiness managers. How students are being prepared is important as a feed and grain firm thinks about on-boarding a new employee.
Working with new hires
Talk with any manager very long about the “next generation,” and in many cases the conversation will drift into general statements about the values and skills these new hires are bringing to the workplace. Statements such as “they don’t write as well as we did,” “they are not effective communicators,” “they don’t have the work ethic that we did,” are comments we hear frequently. In our experience, sometimes there is a bit of “the older I get, the better I was” attitude on the part of those individuals making the statements. If we are honest, looking back, some of those same statements were made about us when we graduated two or three decades ago! And it is easy to forget that when we were 21, we were not quite as focused as we are today — years of professional experience, family responsibilities, etc. tend to shape the way we look at the world.
That said, it is worth looking at how the values of the current generation may be different and what that might mean for preparing future managers. A couple of recent studies are worth a look and offer some pragmatic insight on differences in expectations between new college graduates in agriculture and food and agribusiness employers.
The first study was done by the Agriculture Future of America (AFA) organization and the second was conducted by Michigan State University in cooperation with Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) and the University Industry Consortium (UIC).
Many of the themes of the two studies are the same, so we will focus on the AFA study. The study asks students and employers to rate a series of factors/characteristics/capabilities/attitudes/values that could be related to career success. First, it is important to note that students and industry do see eye to eye on many areas that are important to career success. Issues such as work ethic, communication skills, time management, thinking through problems, oral presentation skills and business writing are rated similarly by students and industry. So, students see these as important to career success and industry agrees. Of course, it is possible that “work ethic” means one thing to a new college graduate and something different to a seasoned industry professional.
However, in some cases, students see certain factors as more important than industry does: hands-on agricultural experience, networking, accounting skills, high GPA, graduating from a well-respected university and knowledge of global market cultures were all rated higher by students than by industry.
Some of this likely comes from what faculty tell their students is important. We do tell students to keep their grades up because we do find that grades matter — past performance is an indicator of future success. And there are some employers who will not interview students who do not meet minimum GPA standards. Likewise, we emphasize the growth process that an international experience can support. We find that studying abroad can affect a student in a variety of ways. They tend to come back with a greater appreciation for global affairs. While many domestic food and agribusiness firms may not require or need a student with a global experience, we feel most all employers benefit from students who have studied abroad. We also push internships and the hands-on agricultural experiences these generate. And we promote the importance of these experiences to students — internships are like “dating before you get married” — each side checking the other out with no promise of a long-term commitment. Maybe industry looks at this as a table stakes experience, but we believe that it would be a big mistake for us to stop promoting such hands-on experiences for our students.