When Michael Gaul distributed invitations to agribusinesses for this fall’s career fair at Iowa State University’s (ISU) College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), he didn’t know what to expect.

There has been steady growth in the number of companies at­­tending the career day, which provides an opportunity for ISU students to meet with recruiters on internships and full-time positions with agribusinesses, commodity groups and others interested in hiring for ag-related jobs. But Gaul, CALS career services director, wondered whether the sharp downturn in the ag economy and a flurry of agribusiness mergers might prompt many company recruiters to stay away from the 2017 career day.

That didn’t happen. More than 260 employers, the third highest on record, showed up for the career fair that was recently held on the ISU campus. And demand remained strong for students earning their degrees within many of the CALS majors.

“I was a little worried that we could see a drop off with everything going on, but that just didn’t happen,” Gaul said last week. “We had a very good response from the recruiters.”

Demand cooling a bit

Demand for students in ag-related fields from ISU and other colleges has cooled a bit from a few years when commodity prices were soaring and agribusinesses were in full expansion mode, Gaul said. But it continues to be very solid, and placement rates for CALS graduates remain consistently near 98 percent, he said.

Robert Meade, recruiting and development specialist at Winterset-based Agriland FS, agrees. “Employers may have gotten a little more picky about who they are hiring, but they still need good interns and good employees and are looking to colleges to provide them.”

Several factors continue to support the market for ag graduates, Gaul said.

In many cases, ag graduates are being helped by demographics. As work forces get older, agribusinesses and others are looking for graduates to fill positions that will be left open by pending retirements, he said.

“You are really seeing it in areas like ag finance where there just is a vacuum to fill, so demand has been strong,” Gaul said.

Another factor supporting the demand, Meade said, is the diversity of jobs that ag graduates can fill. “Agriculture is so cool because all of the opportunities there are in the field,” he said.

Top-notch students

But perhaps the biggest reason for the continued demand for ag graduates is the continued high quality of the students, Gaul said. “We just have a lot of remarkable young people who are motivated and involved and who have a passion for agriculture. That really shows up when they talk with recruiters,” he said.

Gaul and others say that there are several key factors that employers typically look for when they hire students as interns or for full-time positions.

The first is often the student’s involvement in campus activities, especially ag-related activities, Gaul said. “They know that participating in organizations helps build the personal skills that are so important in the workplace.”

Sara Schafer, an ISU senior from DeKalb, Illinois, said she found that school activities are something that potential employers look for. “Employers want to see that you are a team player, can communicate with others and can multi-task,” said Schafer, who has accepted a position with John Deere.

Being involved in a variety of student activities, including CALS Ambassadors, CALS Council and the Ag Business Club, was a big help in finding a position, Schafer said.

“When you go through interviews, the potential employer asks you a lot of questions about your extracurricular activities,” Schafer said. “Being involved helps you successfully answer these. It also teaches you a lot of real-life skills you will not get in the classroom.”

Internships important

Landing internships in the ag sector is another key stepping stone to landing a full-time job, Gaul said. “It’s so important not to waste the summer. It’s when a student can really open the door to a lot of attractive positions,” he said.

Meade of Agriland said internships benefit the students’ resume and provide employers with a look at how a job candidate works in real-world situations. “Internships can make all the difference for an employer,” he said.

That was the experience of Mary Heiller, an ISU senior majoring in animal science from Boone County. She has landed a position in the swine industry.

“Internships related to a student’s field of study will aid in teaching him or her valuable professional and personal skills that cannot be taught in the classroom,” Heiller said. “These skills will ultimately make a student more desirable or attractive to companies looking to hire agriculture graduates.”

Keeping an open mind

Students also need to explore potential positions with job postings out of state or even out of the country, Gaul said. “Agriculture is a global business, so it’s important to keep an open mind about where you want to work,” he said.

That was the experience of Lauren Sendelbach, an ISU senior from Henry, Illinois. The ag business major landed an internship at an agribusiness company in the Netherlands, which led to a full-time job for the Dutch company’s U.S. operations. After a training period in Europe, she’ll move back to a position in Iowa.

“I think it’s important to keep an open mind and look closely at all of the different opportunities,” Sendelbach said. “Sometimes there is a real advantage getting out of your comfort zone.”