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Michigan's Growing Farm
Industry Needs High-Tech Workers

By Laura Blodgett, The Detroit News

September 25, 2012 — While employers are having difficulties filling jobs in engineering, nursing and information technology, a lower-profile but growing Michigan industry also is struggling to hire enough technologically sophisticated workers: agriculture.

Many agribusiness jobs, assisting farmers, pay $35,000 a year and up — with several recently advertised at agriculture employment website AgCareers.com as paying as high as $75,000 to $110,000 a year.

The need for agricultural workers stems in part from a projected 40 percent increase in crops grown in the state by 2025 and an aging work force in which half of the facility managers will retire in the next 10 years, said Jim Byrum, president of the 500-member Michigan Agri-Business Association.

By 2018, the state projects a 0.7 percent rise in farming, fishing and forestry employees and a 7 percent increase in food preparation workers in Michigan. That adds up to more than 25,000 workers.

A 3.9 percent increase, to 124,590 farmers and other agricultural managers, is expected by 2020, according to the state. In addition, the number of agricultural and food science technicians will rise an estimated 5.3 percent to 320 jobs, and the number of agricultural equipment operators will jump 1.7 percent to 1,890 positions, according to state estimates.

"These are not low-wage, poor-benefit occupations," said Byrum, who said the starting salary for graduates with a degree in crop and soil science is around $50,000 a year.

The skills involved in agricultural production today are much different than a decade ago because of technology, he said.

"Folks work on highly sophisticated global positioning systems — what we call auto-steer programs — and farmers are accessing information every minute of the day through BlackBerrys and iPhones," Byrum said. "We don't just hire people with shovels and pitchforks; we hire people with laptops and iPods."

Recent open positions listed on AgCareers.com include a plant geneticist, soil scientist and bio statistician.

"There's nothing about moving manure with a pitchfork in there," said Dave Armstrong, president and CEO of Greenstone Farm Credit Services, which provides loans, insurance and other banking services to 22,000 farming customers. "We're not just sows, cows and plows anymore."

Industry experts say the vacancies are created by an awareness problem.

"We've done a horrible job in our industry saying we are looking for folks," Byrum said. "We need people that don't just have traditional agriculture expertise but (experience such as) science degrees or logistics and supply chain."

An auto plant welder can easily transfer those skills to a shop that specializes in agricultural equipment, Armstrong said.

Farm Background Optional

Crop Production Services, a 10,000-employee Colorado-based company that sells seed, fertilizer and crop protection products, needs to hire 270 people a year nationally just to maintain its operations, said Deanna Pieper, eastern cornbelt regional recruiter in Indianapolis.

"I don't need you to come from a farm," Pieper said. "If you have the work ethic, we can teach you the skill that we need."

Pieper finds that education majors make great salespeople, and sometimes hiring someone without a farming background works better than someone with preconceived notions based on how their family farmed.

Crop Production Services is always looking for custom applicators to run the rigs on location and has a shortage of employees to handle day-to-day tasks such as mixing chemicals in the spring or planning which field needs to be sprayed next.

'High-Stakes' Job Fair

Most companies like Crop Production Services work with agricultural colleges throughout the country, including Michigan State University, which serve as traditional conduits for agricultural majors.

At least 67 employers have signed up for MSU's Oct. 11 agricultural career fair to vie for students and recent alumni seeking internships and full-time jobs.

"It's a high-stakes event," said Jill Cords, career consultant for MSU's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which graduates 500 to 600 students a year. "Employers are fighting for the students earlier and lining up summer internships before the holidays."

Enrollment at MSU in some programs such as food science, agribusiness management and biosystems engineering has increased. Educators speculate the rise may be due to the popularity of television cooking shows and a stronger presence on campus of employers from large companies like Meijer Inc. and Nestle.

But a labor supply problem remains.

"Some of the majors keep up with need," Cords said. "Other majors, such as crop and soil science, we have a deficit with more opportunities than we have students."

Farm Job Estimates

Projected employment growth in particular jobs in Michigan by 2020:
Occupation Jobs Change
Equipment operators / 1,890 / 1.7%
Food science techs / 320 / 5.3%
Ag science teachers*/ 260/ 6.0%
Ag inspectors / 260 / 2.8%
Farmers, ag mgrs. / 124,590 / 3.9%
* Postsecondary

Posted September 25, 2012
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