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Education evolving with the job market, for agriculture

AMES, Iowa — Agriculture is changing quickly and universities around the world are changing with it.

At Iowa State University, Global Resource Systems became a major about seven years ago. It has been the fastest-growing undergraduate program at the university. Part of the requirement for the major is studying overseas, on a farm. As of right now, many students move on to graduate level studies or medical school.

Of the graduates who look for work, there has been a 97-99 percent employment rate. Many of the graduates are working with corporations or governments on global agriculture issues, said David Acker, associate dean and communications director at Iowa State.

“Our students have a growing interest in off-the-beaten-path parts of the world. Our students don’t want to go to Germany. They’re interested in traveling to Africa, to Southeast Asia to learn about tropical agriculture,” he said. “That’s been one of the interesting things to see – the students’ hunger to learn.”

About the same time the university started the Global Resource Systems degree, students started the first U.S. chapter of the International Assoc. of Students in Agriculture and Related Sciences, or IAAS. The students run and organize the program and set up their own exchanges with international students.

When Iowa State hosted the annual conference, international students visited the Midwest for three weeks to learn everything about its agriculture. In other years, the Iowa State students have traveled to the conference in other countries and learned about agriculture in other areas of the world.

To try to stay ahead of industry needs, Acker said they talk with the scientific community and industry partners. Industry partners are usually two or three years ahead of planning than the universities. The things scientists are working on now at the cutting edge of research will eventually become mainstream – like laboratory-grown meat.

Currently, the new kind of meat is not on the curriculum at Iowa State, but Acker thinks that will change soon.

It is a controversy right now: should lab-grown meat be considered “meat?” Acker said those are important topics for students to cover, and the controversy usually means they find it most fascinating.

Big Data is another area he thinks will grow on the curriculum in coming years, especially if it teaches students to predict weather, trends or performance of the genetic material.

Some things will never change, like the scientific basics of photosynthesis, but even some aspects of that process might change in the future as technology, gene editing and virtual reality are used more.

In terms of virtual reality, Acker said some things are easier to understand if a student can be in a contextual environment. In the animal sciences, for example, a student might use VR technology to “walk through” the stomachs of a cow.

Iowa State has focused on global studies, Acker said. Students learn how to understand how agriculture and the global economy are entwined. Consumers want diversity – biodiversity, workforce diversity and product diversity – and he said the university tries to prepare students to meet those requests.

From hi-tech to no tech

Compiled from various agricultural organizations and conferences, here are 12 “hot” career pathways for the curious college applicant to consider:

•Large-animal veterinarians: There is a shortage in the United States. The problem has become so persistent, that the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) provides a Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program that will pay up to $25,000 each year toward qualified student loans if the student agrees to serve the NIFA program for three years after finishing school.

More information can be found at

•Young farmers: The age of the average farmer across the world increases each year. In the U.S., the average farmer is about 65; as a result, the USDA has programs and incentive plans in place to help young, women and minority farmers. There are also programs to help military veterans become farmers.

•Farm management: Farmers need to know or employ people who know about government programs and regulations, global selling and social media. A study by Purdue University and the USDA indicates about 46 percent of agricultural employment opportunities in the next five years will be in management and business. Farm size is increasing and absentee farmers will be more common, and will need someone to run their day-to-day operations.

•Tech troubleshooting: With the amount of technology on the farm and in processing facilities increasing, people are needed to fix related problems. Troubleshooters will have to be able to ask the right questions to find out the problem over the phone, then guide a customer to fix the problem.

•Microbiology: It’s not a new field of study, but new things are learned every year. With more than 9 billion people expected in the world by 2050, new ways to produce more food are always needed.

•Creating, developing and improving wearable technology for livestock: Startups are already working to provide wearable technology for cattle. If a cow has an elevated temperature, a sensor can indicate the need for the farmers to isolate the cow and provide treatment, for example.

•Scientists: Lab-grown meat has become a reality, but is not found on store shelves – yet. As the technology improves, the need for more of this research and development may be used to help feed the world.

•Maintenance: As technology improves, there are fewer workers doing physical labor, like milking cows. But humans are still needed to repair and maintain the equipment used in agriculture, from the farm level to processing plants.

•Big Data analysis: Technology is being used to provide precise information to farmers about what parts of the field need more or less irrigation, which plants are producing best and where more nutrients are needed in the soil. Without someone to tell the farmers what all their data means, it is useless.

•Biological spotters: People used to walk fields and identify the best-producing plants and animals, then try to breed the next generation of plants to those traits. While technology is beneficial, even drones checking each plant in a field haven’t managed to catch up to a skilled and educated person determining the same information.

These spotters, like farmers, are reaching the age to retire and there is no one to take their place.

•Teachers: About 12 percent of jobs in the next five years will be in education, communication and government services.

•STEM: Science, technology, engineering and math jobs are expected to grow by about 27 percent in the next five years. Plant sciences, food scientists, sustainable biomaterials specialists, water rescue scientists and engineers and precision agriculture specialists will be needed.