Students with agriculture degrees are in high demand as businesses hunt for employees with specialized skills and knowledge of the industry.
“It’s green light go for anybody that’s serious about careers in agriculture right now,” says Mike Gaul, director of career services for Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). “The opportunities out there are fantastic.”
The strong agriculture jobs market is reflective of the tight U.S. labor market as a whole, says Rich Crow, director of Buena Vista University’s agriculture program.
“Before COVID, it was strong, but now it’s just off the charts. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “I think (agriculture) may be a little more acute just because we have specialized skill needs or knowledge needs. When I graduated college years ago, there was four or five of us for every job opening. Now there’s four of five job openings for every student.”
Plethora of opportunities
The plethora of opportunities were notable at Iowa State’s annual Agriculture and Life Sciences career fair, which returned to an in-person event this year after a one-year hiatus due to the COVID pandemic. The career fair drew 210 companies and more than 1,500 students, which Gaul says was encouraging coming out of the pandemic.
“I know offers for internships were flying fast and furious,” he says. ISU also hosted a virtual career fair for another few dozen companies that were unable to attend the in-person event.
Crow says one of his Buena Vista students who attended the ISU ag career fair had four interviews lined up before the end of his three-hour drive back to the Storm Lake campus.
“What I found interesting is that two of them called before the career fair even closed,” he says. “Normally, the career fair closes, and then they’ll go through resumes.”
Pushing the timeframe
Companies are also pushing the timeframe for hiring interns earlier in the school year instead of waiting until spring, Crow notes.
“I think part of that is just simply there’s such a competition for the highly qualified student,” he says.
There are a wide range of careers available to agriculture students, ranging from agronomy and animal science to business, communications, environmental studies or a number of other interests, Gaul says.
“When you start to look at the different majors out there, the career paths are so diverse,” he says. “The breadth and depth of careers in all of these majors is really fascinating.”
Internships are an important opportunity for students at both Iowa State and Buena Vista to gain real-world experience.
“I always tell students don’t waste a single summer,” says Gaul. He says ISU students often work at some kind of agriculture-related job after their freshman year, then pursue internships related to their majors after their sophomore and junior years. Oftentimes, those higher level internships lead to full-time job offers.
“A lot of seniors are off the market by the time classes start because they’ve grabbed their full-time job from their internships in the summer,” Gaul reports. “It’s been a surprisingly good market from that perspective.”
Students follow a similar track at Buena Vista, which launched its agriculture program in 2018. The first class of students from that 2018 class are on track to graduate this spring.
“Our goal is to build your experiences so that when you get to your junior level, you’re ready to go into that high-end internship,” Crow explains.
Adding ag programs
Several small, private colleges and universities in rural Iowa have added agriculture programs in recent years to help meet local needs for ag-trained graduates. Rural businesses have found that high school graduates who go to Iowa State or a college outside of Iowa to study agriculture often don’t return to their hometowns, Crow points out.
“Local companies are recognizing that if we can get the students to go to school locally for college, they’re more likely to stay local,” he says.
Broadband will help
Iowa’s push to expand broadband access will also help agriculture graduates settle in rural areas, Crow says. One upcoming BVU graduate has already accepted an offer that allows her to work remotely part of the time.
“She had four job offers, and the one she took was a logistics role for a nitrogen company locally,” he says. “I think it came down (the company) said she could work remotely part of the time. We’re seeing the whole remote work thing is starting to come in, even in ag.”