January 17, 2006

Agriculture students will find fertile career fields

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Food, agriculture and natural resources should prove particularly fertile career fields for this year's crop of college seniors and those who are coming up behind them.

A national study projecting job numbers in these areas through 2010 estimated annual openings at roughly 52,000, with only about 49,300 graduates to fill them. The study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Purdue University and released in 2005, predicted 32,300 of these new employees would come from agriculture colleges, forestry and veterinary schools. Biological sciences, engineering, business, health sciences, communication and applied technology programs will supply the rest.

But that's only part of the picture, said agribusiness economist Kim S. Harris, director of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Office of Economic Education.

Ag business executives he talks to are expecting to lose as many as half their current employees to retirement in the next 10 to 15 years.

"It's this demographic thing with the Baby Boomers," Harris said.

"The first of them turn 60 this year. By 2011, they'll be 65, and that's going to be the beginning of a mass exodus throughout the economy. It's a golden opportunity in terms of entry-level positions.

"It also means great advancement opportunities. New employees will be able to move up the career ladder much quicker than job holders in the last 10 to 15 years, when those upper rungs were jammed up with Baby Boomers."

Where are the jobs? According to the report, the bulk of them — 46 percent — will occur in management and business. Graduates should have no trouble finding work as sales reps, food brokers, agribusiness economists, golf course superintendents and the like. Nor will they face much in the way of competition. The greatest gap between the number of jobs and the grads available to fill them also occur in these areas.

Science and engineering graduates — those with skills in such fields as precision agriculture, animal health, plant and animal breeding, biomaterials engineering and so forth — should also do well.

"What concerns me is production agriculture itself — and by that, I mean farmers and ranchers," Harris said.

"In the last 10 or 15 years, this sector has shrunk because farmers are so efficient at producing corn, soybeans, wheat, and livestock, and the report underscores that. Only 16 percent of the jobs are in production, and we (here at SIUC) have a group of students who want to go into that part of the industry."

Farming opportunities will still exist, but graduates may find that growing specialty crops, fruits, vegetables and landscaping plants will prove more profitable than raising wheat, corn, soybeans and hogs.

As for the estimated 9,300 graduates wishing to go into ag education, communication and governmental agencies, they will find themselves competing for only about 7,000 jobs, though those who plan to teach likely will have better luck than those who want to work as reporters, public relations specialists or farm service agents.

While paying attention to what Harris calls the "skill set" should occupy a place on every student's "to do" list, it will prove particularly important for those entering low-demand fields.

"That way, if you lose your job, you can find employment somewhere else," he said.

People skills — the ability to interact, communicate, work on a team — top that list, with computer skills close behind. Throw in self-motivation and a good work ethic, and you'll make yourself valuable to most any employer.

Harris said he's already beginning to see an uptick in employer demand with the class of 2006.

"We went through a period five years ago when students felt lucky if they had one job offer," he said.

"These days, students are dealing with a very pleasant problem — they have several job offers. They come in here moaning, ‘What should I do?' I say, ‘Realize that five years ago, you would have been moaning, ‘I don't have anything.'"

Companies also are beginning to offer internships to sophomores and juniors as well as the seniors.

"They're getting more aggressive about hiring, creating a match way in advance of when that student graduates," he said.

"I think that will continue and even grow in scope over the next 10 to 15 years."

While the report contained no information on salaries, Harris said that starting salaries for SIUC ag graduates tend to range from $34,000 to $40,000. He expects a moderate rise in starting salaries as the Boomers step down.

"When all those people at the upper levels with the high salaries are gone, it won't cost a lot to raise those entry levels," he said.

"I think we could even see the return of signing bonuses if demand becomes more than supply. Everybody wants the best talent; companies are all chasing the top 20 percent of students."

One thing that could slow salary increases is the rising cost of benefits, especially medical benefits. Harris said it's not unusual for benefits to cost an employer 35 to 40 percent of an employee's salary.

"We're seeing more companies asking employees to pay for an increasing share of the benefits they receive," he said.

Tempting as those high salaries may be, graduates in the job market should look at more than the money, Harris cautioned.

"Agriculture is changing rapidly," he said.

"You can get a foundation in college, but in five years, what you learned could be obsolete. You have to be willing to be a lifelong learner."

The job itself may offer learning opportunities. The company may provide training or underwrite classes, but if it doesn't, employees should find ways to do it themselves.

"The smart individual is going to go to one-day workshops, take online courses," Harris said.

"You have to be very dedicated, but if you don't make that investment in yourself, you may one day find yourself without adequate skills."

Providing career-planning services to students is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.