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January 23, 2017

Investing in the Ag Leaders of the Future, Today

Did you know that each year there are 60,000 new job openings in agriculture but we only have 35,000 graduates to fill them? As surprising as this statistic is, it’s absolutely true and reinforces how we need to address the workforce shortage today if we want to continue to have a nutritious and uninterrupted food supply.

Oftentimes, we are so busy with the present that we forget to invest in the future. We can no longer afford to have that luxury. As ag advances and looks toward technology to help solve issues such as the dire labor shortage, we need highly intelligent and enthusiastic young professionals to bring the industry to the next level. For example, engineering and computer science majors may not think that there is a place for them in ag. They are wrong.

As our current farm labor workforce rapidly decreases, engineers are critical to the development of robots and automatic harvesters that will assist with picking crops in the field. Furthermore, computer science skills—especially the ability to code—are highly desired as apps are increasingly being utilized to assist with farming operations. Big data is where our industry is headed, and we need graduates who understand how to apply that information to enhance management processes. In fact, HeavyConnect, one of the agtech startups working out of our Center for Innovation & Technology, makes it a point to hire computer science students right out of college to develop apps for ag.

It’s important that the industry works together to introduce students to pathways that lead to careers in agriculture and related industries. One of Western Growers’ latest initiatives is to make college students aware of the high-paying, high-skilled job opportunities in ag, as well as facilitate career placement between students and ag organizations. Through our Careers in Ag program, we work with UC Davis, Cal Poly Pomona and University of Arizona to introduce students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to Western Growers members. Students participate in a three-day farm tour where they learn about STEM-related career opportunities in the industry and connect with successful ag professionals in the STEM field. Our Careers in Ag program also hosts ag students from California Community Colleges for a one-day tour, introducing students to ag companies and employment opportunities in the local region.

Beyond college efforts, we make it a priority to help shape elementary school students and professionals already out in the field. The Western Growers Foundation teaches K-12 students the importance of STEM education through planting school gardens; while our Future Volunteer Leaders program focuses on guiding the next generation of ag leaders within our member companies to become advocates for the fresh produce industry.

I can’t stress it enough: developing our future workforce is crucial to keeping ag viable and we need to keep investing.