Commentary: No limits to the value of an agriculture degree

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The following article was written by four Midwestern deans of agriculture, including Jay T. Akridge, Glenn W. Sample Dean, College of Agriculture, Purdue University; Robert J. Hauser, Dean, College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois; Bobby D. Moser, Vice President for Agricultural Administration & Dean, College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, The Ohio State University; and Wendy K. Wintersteen, Endowed Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Iowa State University.

Given the outstanding enrollment and job placement experience in our respective colleges, it was a surprise when three of the five majors "highlighted" in a recent Yahoo Education article by Terrence Loose entitled “College Majors that are Useless” were programs in the agricultural sciences: agriculture, animal sciences, and horticulture.

Before drawing his conclusions, we wish that Mr. Loose had done more homework beyond what appears to be a cursory review of Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers and the repurposing of a similar headline from The Daily Beast a year ago.

Other sources suggest that not only is the need for graduates in these programs growing, but there is a shortage of graduates in the agricultural, food, and natural resource sciences:

  • Broad definition of agriculture. The Yahoo Education article equated "agriculture" with "farm management." Farm management is an important field of study, but defining agriculture only as farm management is much too narrow. Completely ignored are other important areas under the umbrella of "agriculture" including food science, plant science, and soil science, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics report predicts job growth should be faster than the average for all occupations, and where job opportunities are expected to be good over the next decade, particularly infood science and technology and in agronomy. And, of course, the "agriculture" umbrella also covers agricultural economics, agricultural engineering, animal sciences, natural resource and environmental sciences, and agricultural education, to name a few.
  • Very low unemployment rates. Recent (Jan. 5, 2012) online posts (New York Times), and NPR’s StateImpact Ohio) cited a just released report by the GeorgetownUniversity Center on Education and the Workforce which found agriculture and natural resources to be among the fields with the lowest unemployment rates - lower than business, engineering, law, and and several others.
  • Shortage of college graduates to fill need. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Employment Opportunities for College Graduates in Food, Renewable Energy, and the Environment, 2010-2015report, projects that 53,500 qualified graduates will be available for about 54,400jobs annually the agricultural and food systems, renewable energy and the environment. About 55 percent of those graduates (29,300) are expected to earn degrees from colleges of agriculture and life sciences, forestry and natural resources, and veterinary medicine. The other 45 percent, an estimated 24,200 graduates, will come from allied disciplines including biological sciences,engineering, health sciences, business, and communication.
  • No stronger sector for recruiting. Dr. Phil Gardner, Director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, recently wrote, “No sector appears stronger than agriculture/food processing with an increase in hires of approximately 14 percent” in the annual Recruiting Trends report.
  • Vital economic growth engine. A recent study conducted by theBattelle Institute, an independent research organization, found that agriculture and agbiosciences are generating vital economic growth and job creation, particularly in the North Central United States, which includes all four or our respective states. This Midwest area, once dubbed the “Rust Belt,” is becoming the breeding ground for new “green” agriculture-related jobs as the agriculture-driven industry is poised to expand into new markets such as health, specialty crops, biofuels and bio-based products.
  • New areas of opportunity. The article completely misses an important trend of interest in small scale, local foodproduction and those who want to become part of agriculture by launching these types of businesses. The Bureau of Labor Statistics report from which Mr. Loose took some of his numbers even points out that “…an increasing number of small-scale farmers have developed successful market niches that involve personalized, direct contact with their customers. Many are finding opportunities in horticulture and organic food production, which are among the fastest growing segments of agriculture.”

The success of our graduates is also a testament to the usefulness of agricultural majors. Students majoring in "agriculture" study farm management, horticulture, and animal sciences—as well as agricultural and food business, food science, biological engineering, plant breeding and genetics, wildlife biology and forestry, biochemistry, microbiology, entomology, and other exciting, science-based areas. Our graduates take jobs in a wide variety of industries, pursue research careers, and work in public service in the US and internationally.

Across all four of our agricultural colleges, total enrollment the highest in 30+ years, applications are going up and, most importantly, at the end of their undergraduate careers, our students are facing excellent job or graduate program opportunities. Placement rates are higher than 90%, with 16-26% of that total choosing to pursue advanced degrees and professional education.

Beyond the statistics about jobs, let’s think about some basic human needs and consider what "degrees" will prepare a young man or woman to help provide for those needs. Adequate nutrition is a basic need of all humans. Our planet recently reached the 7 billion population mark and the United Nations estimates we will have 2.3 billion more people to feed by the year 2050. We must address how to feed all these people with little expansion of land; in a way that conserves our water resources; and in a fashion that society judges acceptable and even more respectful of our environment. For answers, take a closer look at our agricultural majors.

In addition, those in agriculture will make important contributions to our country’s energy requirements and help provide feedstocks for other industrial materials. To meet these challenges, a growing number of passionate, smart, and well-prepared people have a lot ofwork to do. And we see and talk to these people every day in our campus classrooms, labs and fields.

That’s why we’re very excited by the prospects for our graduates. Agriculture has been one of the bright spots in the U.S. economy during the current recession and incredible opportunities exist for new economic development in our states and our country. Our graduates are currently writing their own story, and the headline reads: “College Majors that are Invaluable.”


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Phyllis Beard    
Twin Falls, Idaho  |  February, 03, 2012 at 09:34 AM

Much of the food and fiber produced by agriculture (including food processors) supplies the world. Without qualified graduates in agriculture associated disciplines, not only the United States, but many of our neighbors would be adversely impacted.

Melissa    
Maryland  |  February, 07, 2012 at 08:02 AM

Being in the industry I have to only partially agree with this article. There is a huge difference between book smart and experience. Depending on exactly what you want to do an ag degree can be a huge disadvantage. Yes it proves you are interested and determined but so does working your life in the business. I know several animal science degrees that are taking up room on the wall and nothing more. I have spent my whole life in animal science but never earned a degree. My co worker has a degree knows less and gets paid less than me. Make sure you pick the right school and do more than just get the degree. Producers don't care if you know it they care if you can do it.


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