Russell C. Redding
Dean, School of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Delaware Valley College
Russell C. Redding grew up on his family’s dairy farm near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He attended Penn State, graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture and extension education. Redding served a total of 16 years in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and was appointed Secretary of Agriculture for Pennsylvania in 2009. Early in his career, he ran his own dairy operation with his wife, Nina. He has been involved with Future Farmers of America for three decades and served as Vice President of the state organization.
I can picture the conversation of the 23 members who came together in 1785 to discuss the labor needs at the time. No doubt they talked about what was happening on the dockside, what was happening in the forests and on the farms. Fast forward to today and we are still discussing the human capital needs of agriculture. What skills do we need to people entering the industry of agriculture? I am one of eleven children so on our farm, we had a labor force. After my wife and I finished our college educations we went back to the farming. We gathered up the cattle that I owned, some machinery and some money and rented a farm. That experience proved to be our joint master’s degree in reality as we had to figure out how to deploy our limited amount of capital.
There is a resurgence of public interest in agriculture not least because, as many of you know, the world will need to roughly double its production of food by 2050. There is a need for capable people who can work out the complex issues we face such as how we will be able to feed the planet with limited resources. What should the competencies of people entering the agriculture industry be? And it’s not just about the future. Today, we need talented people in the industry who can figure out the issues we currently face.
Of course, we have to define agriculture. What is it? I look at this in a broad context. Defined in its broadest sense, it includes food production and associated activities. Further, all labor in agriculture is skilled. Education for this workforce covers vocational, technical skills, training, certificate programs, degree programs, and continuing education.
I was surprised when Yahoo ran an article about useless degrees. The author identified agriculture as being one. The definition he was using for agriculture was farm management. Farm management is a large part of our conversation about human capital needs of our industry. So is education but it may not be a four-year degree or a master’s or Ph.D. There is a wide range of vocational and technical skills that will be needed. When I asked my father if I could go to college, he said he had hoped I would step forward to run the farm. I said I understood that but that I first wanted to go to college. Today that is really important as agriculture becomes more complex and requires more skills than ever.
If we look at a profile of the work force, I think 30 percent of the people are already in agriculture. Forty percent know they want to be in agriculture and have the skills to do so. That leaves the balance of 30 percent who have the skills but don’t know they want to work in agriculture. These people are being educated in biology, chemistry, business and a variety of other disciplines. This latter group should be a big part of our conversation going forward. We need to communicate to them.
About 66 percent of the workforce required in 2020 and 45 percent of the workforce for 2030 are in the workforce today, beyond the reach of K-12 or traditional college access, according to the National Skills Coalition. Why is this discussion important? One reason is farm transitions. It is important to support our base of farm knowledge. With the average age of farm population being well over 50 years on average and the high value of their assets, there is a need for determined transitions. A Farm Journal magazine survey found that 80 percent of farms plan to transition but only 20 percent have a written plan. Farm Journal’s Legacy Project is attempting to address this need.
This is an extraordinary time to be in agriculture and the food system. Every indicator is up – commodity prices, land values, population, energy demand, technology need/use, and public concern and appreciation for agriculture. At the World Economic Forum, seventeen global companies launched what they described as “new vision of agriculture”, promising to do more for small farmers around the world. People are talking about agriculture all over the world. The Gates Foundation, the world’s richest charity, added agriculture to their list of focus areas, along with health care and development. Why? Food is important and sufficient future supplies of it are in doubt.
What is driving the future skills needs for agriculture and the food system? A big driver is consumer expectations for food three times a day with transparency, choice, knowledge and relationships with the food system. Others are population growth, food demand, advances in science and technology, food security/insecurity concerns, global trade and related agreements, environmental regulations/expectations and resource pressures such as land, water, and energy.
What skills are employers recruiting in candidates on campus? Experience in their chosen field, is rated highly as are contemporary views and policy perspectives on key issues. Communication skills are also important, both written and oral. Experience with technology is critical and not to be overlooked are candidates with a smile. Employers seek the ability to blend the sciences, civics and technology — and of course, solid academic achievement.
The job outlook in agriculture is strong. The unemployment rate for the sector is seven percent. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Employment Opportunities Report there are 52,000 jobs annually in food, agriculture, and natural resources and 49,300 qualified graduates: 74 percent in business and science occupations, 15 percent in agriculture and forestry production, and 11 percent in education, communication, and governmental services.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 5 percent increase in the need for qualified graduates but a 10 percent decline in the number of students choosing these fields. The top five career types on Agcareers.com are: sales and marketing, 25 percent; management/manager, 11 percent; crop chemical applicator, 6 percent; production agriculture manager, 6 percent; and general agriculture worker, 5 percent.
What is education’s role in developing a skilled labor force? It is to listen, learn and lead. Education is a full partner, but it is a partnership with employers and industry. We must develop and deliver a relevant and marketable product. And, we must focus on education, not degrees. We must help students see the possibilities in agriculture. That means working with industry to develop an Agriculture Workforce Strategic Plan that addresses skills and competencies needed. We should recognize that just as the consumer product market is segmented by choices, the skills market is equally segmented, requiring different products. It is important to develop in partnership with industry experiential learning opportunities to both expose students to opportunities and job expectations. And we must build on a strong foundation – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.