September 11, 2019

Turning Today’s STEM Students into Tomorrow’s Ag Extraordinaires

A skilled labor deficit is plaguing the nation’s agriculture industry as more growers are turning to mechanization and digitization to bolster operations on the farm. There are an average of 60,000 openings for high-skill, ag-related jobs annually but only 35,000 graduates to fill them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These jobs typically require a bachelor’s degree or higher with a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum extremely valuable. They include positions in plant and food science, water resources, engineering and precision agriculture. In fact, STEM skills are a necessity for 27 percent of new ag jobs.

“Agriculture is no longer just cows and plows,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO at Western Growers (WG).” As innovation and technological development within our industry continues to boom, hundreds of new job categories in science, technology, engineering and math-related fields are being created annually.”

The blitz of new STEM jobs available in ag will continue to soar in the coming years as American agricultural production must significantly ramp up to meet the needs of a growing population. The United Nations recently reported that world’s population is expected to increase by two billion persons in the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050. Coupled with other factors including land use issue, this means that food production efficiency needs to increase by as much as 70 percent. Achieving this dramatic increase in global food production requires a systemic transformation in the way we cultivate our food. That is where technology comes in. The future of ag depends on technology and the highly-skilled workers who can effectively and efficiently operate these new programs and machines.

Careers in Ag Program Expands to Place More Students in Jobs

In an effort to fill the ag workforce gap, Western Growers launched a Careers in Ag Program in 2016 to encourage college students to pursue STEM careers within the ag industry. The students, who are all pursuing STEM-related degrees, embark on a three-day journey to tour ag operations throughout California and Arizona. Throughout the tour, they learn about the vast array of STEM jobs available in the industry, meet ag professionals who provide career insight and guidance, and connect with Western Growers members to possibly pursue an internship or job within their operation.

The program initially launched with UC Davis and Cal Poly Pomona, but has since expanded to other universities including Cal State L.A., University of Arizona, West Hills College, College of the Sequoias, and Reedley College. This summer, the program hosted its first-ever career trek with Fresno State and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where 14 total students met with Western Growers members including HMC Farms, Booth Ranches, Anthony Vineyards, Dan Andrews Farms, Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds, Woolf Farming & Processing, Terranova Ranch and Simplot. The scholars also had the opportunity to meet with professionals from the Kern County Farm Bureau and Kern Delta Water District.

“This trip was very beneficial for me since I don’t come from an ag background,” said Jackson Mattos, a senior at Fresno State University. Within weeks of participating in the tour, Mattos received an internship with Don Cameron at Terranova Ranch.

“Jackson is great,” said Cameron. “We have him working in various tasks here on the ranch, and we are so glad we found him through the Western Growers program. We have had a difficult time finding local talent that is willing to dedicate themselves to learning on farm, hands on. Jackson has proven he is willing to work hard and engage fully here at Terranova Ranch.”

Mattos is among the many success stories directly resulting from the Careers in Ag program. In December 2016, Travis Taylor was hired as a production analyst intern with Automated Harvesting/Taylor Farms after he connected with Chris Rotticci (co-founder of Automated Harvesting) during the tour. Taylor’s internship played a key role in landing a job as farm manager at Blossom Vineyards immediately after he graduated from UC Davis.

Tasien Some, an agronomy/agribusiness student at Cal Poly Pomona, was offered an internship at Gowan USA after being introduced to the company during the Careers in Ag trek held in December 2017. During the visit at Gowan, employees from various departments met with the students to showcase the wide variety of jobs available within the company. Some interacted with the career panel and was later selected for a summer internship in Gowan’s research department in Yuma, AZ.

In addition to facilitating career placement between students and agricultural organizations, the Careers in Ag program has also had a hand in guiding educational pathways. Nathalie Gomez first participated in the Careers in Ag program when she was a freshman at UC Davis. At the time, Gomez was pursuing a degree in biochemistry, but after attending the June 2018 tour she had a change of heart.

“When we toured Seminis, I noticed how happy everyone was doing what they were doing,” said Gomez. “You could tell the employees were passionate about their job, and it got me really excited. With biochem, I never felt that way.”

Gomez attended one more Careers in Ag trek in December 2018 before taking the leap and changing her major. “Steve Powell of Peter Rabbit Farms and Jack Vessey from Vessey and Company really inspired me. After hearing how each day can be a battle but they do what they do because they love it and no two days are the same really hit home for me,” said Gomez. When she returned to school, she immediately changed her major to plant science and plans to pursue plant breeding or postharvest positions when she graduates.

New Ag Job Board Connects STEM Job Seekers to Western Growers Members

Nearly 215 students have participated in the Careers in Ag program, and to further provide these students with easy access to jobs in agriculture, Western Growers recently created a Careers in Ag Job Center. The Job Center, which was officially rolled out in July 2019, is a jobs platform exclusively for STEM-related careers within the agricultural industry.

“Our new job board connects candidates directly to highly-skilled, high-paying jobs and makes the hiring and recruitment process easier for our farmers who are busy trying to feed the nation and world,” said Nassif.

The new job board showcases STEM jobs in the fresh produce industry and provides a streamlined interface that gives employers and candidates an easy-to-use matching process. The job board is currently a complimentary service for all job seekers and Western Growers members and is accessible online at