The future of ag education
Mitchell Tech students Carter Robertson, Jay Storm, Hunter Janish and Jacob Dold learn about the capabilities of an infrared drone for tracking crop progress throughout the growing season.
By Peg Zenk
Over the past two years, the pandemic caused a major disruption in the U.S. labor force. It’s not a new challenge — most ag businesses have been dealing with a dwindling pool of potential employees for more than a decade — but the pandemic seems to have compounded the problem.
Shrinking rural populations are a major factor, but it has become even more challenging to fill jobs that demand long hours and can involve work with higher risk and liability than the average desk job, says Amanda Jackson, a talent acquisition specialist with CHS. “I’ve worked as a recruiter for 20 years and the last two years have definitely been the most challenging.”
For many cooperatives, filling operations positions, such as truck drivers and applicators, is the most difficult, she says. “But it can also be a challenge to fill sales and precision ag jobs because those roles require very specific skill sets.”
Finding solutions has required a more proactive approach to recruiting and some out-of-the-box thinking. Here are a few examples of how ag organizations are finding and training the employees they need.
Build Dakota internships
For Mark Van Dyke, an agronomy sales manager for CHS, based in Mitchell, S.D., staying fully staffed at the cooperative’s nine agronomy locations around southeastern South Dakota can be a challenge. Early recruiting of college students for internships is one of the most effective strategies he and other cooperative managers have implemented.
“We’re trying to create a pipeline of graduates and potential hires for high-demand jobs, including agronomy operations and sales,” he says. “Finding interns has gotten very competitive. Every fall, we go to college career fairs around the state and in neighboring states, and we find about one-third of students already have summer internships lined up,” he says. “When you identify good candidates at a fair, you usually need to make them an offer within days.”
A few years ago, the cooperative began participating in a statewide program that helps match students to potential careers even earlier — in high school. The Build Dakota scholarship fund was created in South Dakota in 2015 with philanthropic donations and legislative funds to address the state’s workforce shortage by training and retaining highly skilled workers.
The scholarships cover half the cost of tuition for certain two-year programs that fill positions of greatest need in the state, while sponsoring businesses pay the other half. Originally, the only agricultural program that qualified was precision ag technology, but, beginning in 2023, agronomy and ag production will qualify, too. Van Dyke, who serves on boards for Mitchell Technical College and the South Dakota Agri-Business Association, lobbied for the latest additions.
The catch? High school seniors need to commit to working at the sponsoring business as interns during two years of college and full-time for three years after graduation.
“The first year we were a little nervous about participating, since it requires paying half a year’s tuition up-front for each student,” recalls Van Dyke, “but we’ve seen good results and feel it’s a reasonable investment for the co-op to get motivated employees who we can help train. We are sponsoring four students in the 2022 class, but would love to have 10.”
He points to Lindsey Berg as one of the program’s success stories. The Emery, S.D., native grew up on a farm that raised cattle, corn and soybeans, and her father worked in the agronomy business. “I originally wanted to be an ag teacher,” she says, “but after shadowing an agronomist and touring Lake Area Technical College in Watertown, S.D., I decided to enroll in the precision agriculture program there.”
Signing on to a five-year commitment to the cooperative was a little daunting, Berg admits, “but I’m a planner, so getting a full ride for tuition and having a guaranteed job at the end was a great deal.”
After completing her spring and summer college internships at CHS Farmers Alliance, Berg started full-time at the cooperative in May 2020, beginning as an agronomy trainee and then moving into a permanent sales position a few months later when a long-time employee retired.
“Lindsey is a very driven person who has exceeded her goals every year and is always willing to do extra things around here, just to learn more and be helpful,” says Van Dyke. “For us, Lindsey’s a rock star.”
Practical job experience in agronomy sales
Another South Dakota cooperative has taken advantage of the Build Dakota program to entice promising young people to get practical work experience in agriculture and within the cooperative system. The CHS retail business based in Brandon has taken it a step further, says seed manager Bob Goodroad, who also oversees intern recruitment.
“We’ve added a layer to our full-time positions called agronomy sales trainee (AST) for new employees who don’t have as much experience in sales,” he says. “An employee will typically work in that position six to 18 months to get fully up to speed and then move into a sales position. This allows us to train new employees for areas where we want to grow our business, as well as build a strong bench.”
Not all ASTs are fresh out of college, he notes. “One current AST is closer to middle age and is getting into agriculture after working in another industry. This program allows him to work with one of our top sellers and begin building relationships.”
Sales Agronomist Jackson Kerr worked his way through the Build Dakota program as an intern at the cooperative, then spent six months as an AST before moving into his current position in January 2022. “Through my internships and trainee time, I’ve gotten to work in many areas within the cooperative, from scouting fields and working with farmers to handling grain,” Kerr says. “I’ve really enjoyed the diversity and look forward to continuing to grow our sales.”
Tapping urban schools
Creating more awareness of agricultural careers and CHS is why Goodroad contacted administrators at the Career and Technical Education Academy working with Sioux Falls, S.D., area high schools. “Last year, the academy launched an agriculture program and I wanted us to be involved.”
As an exclusive sponsor of the new program, CHS gets naming rights and commits to class time that allows CHS employees to share their expertise and in-field experience with students. “We’ll be able to promote opportunities in agronomy and in all our business units, including energy and grain,” says Goodroad. “We’re becoming a real-world part of the curriculum.”
Ag teacher and FFA advisor Andrew Jensen says he is grateful for the support and excited to tap into the resources the cooperative offers as he grows the program, now in its first year. “Most of our students know very little about agriculture. I’m looking forward to taking them on tours of local agri-businesses and having more guest speakers. We’re working on a collaborative farm safety presentation this fall. We’re also starting a new FFA chapter here, and I appreciate that the CHS Foundation is a National FFA sponsor,” Jensen notes. “The financial support is great, but they’re also here in person to provide students with the practical advice they need to have successful careers. Our program is all about providing the hands-on component to education.”
Check out the full C magazine with this article and more.
- High school CDL class
- MANRRS student leader says diversity will strengthen ag industry
- Hands-on learning in a CHS internship
- High school ag programs on the rise