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Careers in agriculture

Agriculture is an industry that offers many diverse career opportunities both on and off the farm. Increasingly, agricultural employers, especially those in agri-business, are recruiting right off university and college campuses to try and snap up the tightening supply of qualified candidates.

“Many of our students, whether it is for summer or permanent employment, are hired by the beginning of the academic year,” says Neil French, co-ordinator of agricultural management programs at Olds College, Alberta. “Recruiters are coming earlier and earlier and the recruiting is much more aggressive than it’s ever been, which is good news for our students and for agriculture.”

Employers are more aggressively recruiting for a reason. “In some areas, like for example agronomists, there’s a high demand,” says Erika Osmundson at AgCareers.com. “On the trade side, for things like welders, mechanics, applicators and so on, there aren’t necessarily new jobs but there is a lack of people being trained to fill them.”

New opportunities are emerging all the time as both technology and social trends have an influence upon agriculture. Agro-ecology is a fairly new program at the University of Manitoba (U of M), and although numbers of graduates are few at the moment, they have no problem in finding jobs.

“I think we are seeing more interest in holistic approaches to agriculture,” says Merv Pritchard, associate dean of the Faculty of Agriculture & Food Sciences at the U of M. “The intersection of production, environmental sustainability and food safety are new areas where we are seeing more opportunities opening up for our students.”

The University of Saskatchewan (U of S) has added a Bachelor of Science degree in Renewable Resource Management (RRM) and has introduced more practical and inquiry based learning into its curriculum to try and give students a head start when it comes to finding employment. “We are trying to help our students obtain actual skills in the field, so for example, in our agronomy field school they perform basic crop scouting,” says Karen Hughes, student services co-ordinator at the U of S College of Agriculture & Bioresources. “In agri-business one class is working in teams with industry to develop marketing and business plans. In the RRM program students do a final project with an industry partner that integrates all their areas of study.”

Olds College in Alberta is developing a two-year diploma in agricultural management with a bio-processing and distribution specialization. “We are developing this additional stream because we feel there are good opportunities in the value-added side of agricultural production,” says Tanya McDonald, dean of the School of Agriculture.

Where the jobs are

For various reasons some jobs, like grain merchandiser and hog barn manager, are harder to fill than others. Declining interest in the livestock field by both students entering educational programs and graduates entering the workforce has been a general trend over the last few years.

While there are new and interesting opportunities opening up in the area of biotechnology, there is a shortage of Masters and PhD graduates in the pure sciences related to plant breeding at the molecular level, says Laura Lazo, job placement and co-operative education co-ordinator with the U of M. Masters in science level students that can also bring a background in farming is desirable for many large multinational employers, she adds.

In some cases, full time jobs are difficult because they are in remote locations and require candidates to relocate. So mobility is another factor that can give job candidates a definite competitive advantage, says Lazo. “I am told by the employers that if a candidate is mobile and willing to relocate he or she will often beat out the competition,” she says.

In general, students taking agronomy or agri-business programs are virtually guaranteed a job with mainstream companies, though there are fewer opportunities for those interested in institutions such as banks and government, says Lazo. That’s not to say that anyone choosing to enter the world of agri-business or other ag-related fields can write their own ticket. First they need to make sure they have the skills and knowledge that their prospective employers want. Increasingly those include so-called “soft” skills, like communications, problem solving and team skills.

“Although the industry wants students to have an extended education, in most situations, they are also focusing on things like a person’s ability to communicate, his or her ability to multi-task and interact with a team,” says Osmundson.

Interpersonal and problem solving skills, are hugely important to employers, says Lazo, both in regard to customer service and the workplace environment. “Most employers now recognize that the human relationships within the workplace are very important to productivity,” she says. “They see an increase in their profits, because by improving the way we relate to each other we work better.”

University and college programs in agriculture continue to evolve along with the industry. Most degree programs maintain majors in different disciplines like finance or business and marketing to allow for eventual specialization, but Olds College now requires all first year students to take the same program, which includes courses in production, finance, plants, animals, mechanics, marketing, accounting and business management. “We want all our students to come out of here with a broad, comprehensive education,” says French.

Professionalism and good business skills remain at the top of the list for many employers. And most colleges and universities place strong emphasis on these things in many of their programs.

“Most universities throughout North America and Europe are developing courses around professionalism,” says Lazo.

As farms get larger and private consulting companies increasingly take over and expand upon the roles that used to be served by government extension services, jobs and responsibilities are increasingly connected in ways that make communication and management capabilities increasingly important. So, while employment prospects look good for the agricultural sector of the future, those who enter it will need a broader range of knowledge and skills than ever before.

Note: Laura Lazo is trying to develop programs customized to meet the needs of the agricultural industry and invites input at [email protected]

About the author

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Angela Lovell

Angela Lovell is a freelance writer based in Manitou, Manitoba. Visit her website at http://alovell.ca or follow her on Twitter @angelalovell10.

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