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Colleges, ag businesses discuss workforce needs

July 24, 2012
Kylie Saari - Staff Writer , Fairmont Sentinel

MANKATO - Leaders of Minnesota's state colleges turned their attention to agribusiness Monday to find out if they are teaching their ag students what they need to know when looking for a job.

The meeting at Greater Mankato Growth was the first of many listening sessions planned statewide to help align college programs with employer needs.

Minnesota State Colleges and Universities numbers indicate that for most ag sectors the need for qualified graduates greatly outweighs the supply. For example, in the agriculture mechanics and equipment sector, the colleges graduated 12 new grads in 2010, while they estimate a need of 173 new workers in that industry annually.

The same trend is seen in farm business management, plant and soil science, and more.

Caveats to the data are numerous, however, as many businesses have traditionally taken employees right off the farm with experience and a high school education.

But economic indicators show that is changing.

"We are seeing a situation where the demand is starting to shift from day-to-day experience," said Kyle Uphoff, regional analysis and outreach coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. "It is not always an agriculture program that produces workers for a particular job."

One agribusiness leader in attendance said that with agriculture mechanics specifically, his company isn't likely to hire a kid off the farm to work on specialized equipment that can cost up to $100,000.

"The bar we have is much, much higher," he said.

Other business leaders said current applicants for ag sector jobs often show up without soft skills required for the job. One said only 60 percent of new hires can pass a basic communications skills test and need remediation through online courses. Employers are seeking skills such as showing up on time, being able to talk to a customer appropriately or write a report.

Keith Stover, president of South Central College in Mankato, said he isn't surprised to hear that applicants aren't always fully qualified. He said there are many students who start programs, take the technical classes, then drop out to work before finishing the English, speech and math requirements.

Other requests business leaders made of college ag programs: Include a commercial driver's license in course requirements; add political science so new hires can understand the global impact of farming; and add foreign language so they can communicate with customers in China, Russia or with Spanish-speaking co-workers.

Largely, though, the focus on what agribusiness is looking for is needed before college. Several business leaders noted that parents should be aware of the technical jobs available for their children before they "force them into a four-year degree."

"Parents are thinking, 'My kid is going to a four-year school and going to make all kinds of money,'" one attendee said. "They don't know how much money can be made with a two-year degree."

Upon questioning, most agribusiness leaders were unaware of the resurgence of agriculture programs and FFA programs in high schools across the state.

Looking into the future, many employers said they will look to hire, as much of their current workforce will be aging toward retirement in the next decade.

Jennifer Byers of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said information from Monday's and six other listening sessions will be shared not only with the MnSCU system, but with all schools across the state.



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