September 06, 2012 | By Jay Akridge and John Foltz
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Educating Tomorrows Managers

What role can your business play in finding and preparing the next generation of ag leaders?

Where will we find our next generation of agribusiness managers? How can we make sure they have the preparation they need to be successful? What role should agribusiness play in answering these questions? As we look to the future, these are some pretty important questions that deserve some serious thought by everyone interested in the future of agriculture. Even though answering them won’t necessarily help a feed and grain firm in the short run, they are critical questions for the long-run health of the industry. In this article, we will focus on some ideas and strategies to insure the agribusiness management talent pipeline remains full of the kind of individuals the industry needs for a successful future.

The situation

Making sure we have young men and women preparing for the agricultural careers of the future will be no small task. USDA projects that between 2010 and 2015 there will be 54,400 jobs annually for individuals with a B.S. or higher degree in the agricultural sciences. Over that period, there will be about 29,300 annual graduates from agriculture, forestry/natural resources, and veterinary medicine programs. Another 24,200 graduates annually will come from allied disciplines such as business, communication, biological sciences, engineering and health sciences. So, over the next few years there will be about 1,000 more jobs annually for B.S. and higher graduates available than there are graduates to fill them. And while we don’t have the data, we regularly hear from our friends in the agricultural industry that there is a need for more graduates with associate or two-year degrees. So, as an industry, we have our work cut out for us simply to make sure we have the numbers of individuals we need before we say anything about how these individuals are prepared.

There are a couple of important implications here. First, we all must work together to help ensure that young men and women understand the exciting opportunities and the breadth of those opportunities in food and agriculture. Institutions such as the ones we work for use a variety of recruiting strategies to help get the word out and recruit young people to study food and agricultural disciplines. Future Farmers of America (FFA), 4-H, K-12 outreach programs, dual-credit courses, teacher education —  you can find aggressive outreach/recruiting programs at places such as Purdue University and the University of Idaho, as well as most every other university with an agricultural college/unit. But we can only go so far and there is no question in our minds that hearing from industry can both reinforce the messages we convey and reach audiences we can’t reach. A number of strategies are possible for industry here:

1. Partner with your local university/community college. Take some time to meet the individuals responsible for recruiting at your local university/college. Find out how you can support what they are doing.  Find out what groups they are targeting and how you can engage those groups. Consider, too, getting the word out to students/groups they are not pursuing, but that might have some interest in food and agriculture.

An idea that might be worth pursuing is to offer a combination scholarship/internship with your feed and grain business for promising college sophomores or juniors. Perhaps even take this a step further and offer an “ROTC” (Reserve Officer Training Corps — college programs offered by the military at colleges and universities to prepare future officers in the armed services, which pay students for their schooling and require employment with the military upon graduation) type program. Some businesses call these “co-op” type programs — several federal agencies offer plans such as these.  While you may feel you are taking a bit of a risk offering a guarantee of employment with your firm to a college sophomore or junior — most of these students should have good indicators for employability even at this stage of their lives — grades, campus involvement, recommendations from professors, etc. Also, this approach allows you to start filling your employment pipeline early and to work with your selected student as they receive their education and become more mature.   

2. Partner with your local FFA/4-H/high schools. We bet you already are deeply involved in these organizations. However, do you focus on promoting future career opportunities in the industry? What explicitly do you do to help students better understand where they might fit in your organization/in the industry? Through your involvement, how can you help students see a future in your firm/industry?

3. Partner with a “non-traditional” organization. What kind of talent do you need longer term?  Do you need sales people and marketers, managers, nutritionists and crop consultants, or  Commodity traders? What skills do these people need? Looking beyond traditional sources, where might you find them? Maybe you should be connecting with the local science fair, or the Future Business Leaders of America. Maybe you should be tapping the journalism club or the honor society. Clearly, we are not going to find all the talent we need from the traditional sources. How can you reach out to students who are interested in what we do, but just don’t yet know they can put those interests to work in the agricultural sciences?

Preparing the next generation

We won’t spend too much time on this point, but it may be useful for you to know a bit more about some of the ways colleges are working to help prepare students for industry careers, and what may have changed since you were a student. The classroom remains central of course, but there is a big push now for what are called “active learning strategies” or student-centered learning — getting students deeply involved and engaged in the learning process.  In years gone by, the lecture by a professor was emblematic of a college education. Today, you are likely to find that lecture available via video for the student to view outside class so that class time is focused on discussion/case studies/application/lab work, etc. Our guess is that many students have had more team projects than they care to acknowledge, and writing and oral communication are stressed across curricula, not just in English or communications courses. Of course, not every student is better prepared than they once were in these areas, but the opportunities are there. At the University of Idaho, students majoring in agribusiness must take a “capstone” course in their senior year. In this class, they work with an agribusiness firm to tackle a management challenge facing that firm. They do background research and develop a plan to tackle the issue and present this to management at the conclusion of the course. Your feed or grain business might search out such opportunities to give you outside insight into a problem you are facing, as well as be introduced to potential employees.

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 can be found at  www.agfuture.org/s/1342/images/editor_documents/about_us_documents/millennium_research_study.pdf.

The second, conducted by Michigan State University in cooperation with Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) and the University Industry Consortium (UIC), can be found at www.aplu.org/document.doc?id=3414.

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. That said, we do know that students and industry rate this factor in a similar way, even if they might define it differently.

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 like us tell our 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 we have 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 will likely better understand why culture matters in personal and professional interactions. Students generally gain another measure of maturity after having to navigate another country. 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.

So what does industry see more important than students? Attributes such as a sense of urgency, being a quick study, being results focused, intelligence and excellent computer skills were all rated more important by industry compared to students. We will focus on the first three —  most students are very computer savvy today, so it is not surprising students rated this lower than employers. And intelligence is something we can build on, as well as working to attract bright individuals to the industry. But, both the AFA and the MSU/APLU/UIC studies show a bit of disconnect between students and industry on what we might call “the pace of business.”

This is an important issue and one that agribusiness mangers should be sensitive to also.  In general, these studies suggest that new hires are pretty dialed in to what is important. But, they may need some coaching to help them understand the importance of self-starting, of generating results, of getting things done … today.  Managers who understand this disconnect, and who work to bring new hires along on these areas, will likely lower frustration levels (for both parties) and will likely increase the likelihood of a successful hire. Ideas here include careful communication of expectations with respect to effort/projects/delivery, mentoring/job shadowing so that the new hire experiences the expectations first hand, and quick follow-up when a new employee is not delivering. On the last point, it is important that the employer recognize this failure to deliver as “not knowing” as opposed to “not caring” in many cases.

Some final points

Back in February, Yahoo! Education ran a post on College Majors that are “Useless,” and Agriculture was “Useless Degree” No. 1!  Of course, we could not disagree more strongly — we are very bullish on the future of the food and agricultural industries and the future for agricultural graduates. That said, the Yahoo! posting was a vivid reminder of the momentum we have to overcome to help students understand the opportunities that agriculture can offer. Reaching out to nontraditional sources of talent means we will need to help those students overcome some stereotypes about our industry. 

In addition, reaching out to nontraditional student pools means we will need to help them understand agriculture in ways that we currently don’t when students come from the proverbial “farm background.” Grounding a student/new employee in the basics of agronomy or livestock production or grain markets will likely be more important as we look to the future. 

Finally — and this is likely a future Manager’s Notebook column topic — is the role social media plays in attracting, retaining, educating and leading new employees. Our next generation of managers has grown up in a social media world. They come with an amazing ability to connect through these social media tools. How do we use those tools most effectively? How can the next generation put those skills to work in our food and agribusiness firms? There are clearly questions that agribusiness managers should be asking.

Providing food, feed, fiber, and fuel for 9 billion people by the year 2050 is going to take an exceptional pool of human capital. We think we speak for all of our colleagues at US colleges and universities in saying we look forward to working with industry to make sure that pool of talent is available and prepared for the challenge.

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