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Grad shortage could hurt growing poultry industry

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

Two years ago, one University of Georgia poultry student decided to see how many job offers he could get. He still holds the record at eight.

The average UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ poultry science graduate can expect two to six job offers as they close in on graduation. And they get to skip the typical three-month anxiety attack that comes with a post- graduation job hunt.

While students in other majors may have to hit the pavement a little harder to find their first jobs, the poultry science department “can’t graduate enough students for the industry,” said department head Mike Lacy.

The supply and demand problem stems from the increased consumption of poultry -- and the decreased interest in agricultural-related college majors.

“More and more poultry is consumed each year,” Lacy said. “It’s convenient, it’s a high quality product, and it has good health benefits. But there’s been a drop in the number of people interested in agriculture in general. We don’t have as many people who are farmers, students whose parents are farmers.”

As the worldwide demand for poultry grows, so does Georgia’s poultry industry, which is the state’s top farm commodity. In 2005, broilers alone provided more than 40 percent of the state’s agricultural income.

“It's just a huge industry here,” said Gene Pesti, a CAES professor of poultry science and animal nutrition. “There are so many jobs for our graduates -- good jobs. And the industry is still growing.”

Industry officials are concerned that with the shortage of poultry science graduates, there will also be a shortage of adequate leadership in the poultry industry in coming years.

“I know from talking to industry colleagues that they believe that future leaders in the industry will need to have four-year degrees, be well-trained, sharp, bright and aggressive,” Lacy said. “The U.S. has historically led the world in innovations in poultry production. If we don’t have more graduates go into those jobs, I think poultry innovations in the United States will not be able to keep pace in the future.”

“We have big exports, lots of money coming into the state,” Pesti said. “It’s not uncommon at all for the breast meat we produce to be consumed in Minnesota, the legs to be eaten in Russia and the feet to be shipped to Hong Kong and China.”

It’s not uncommon for UGA graduates to be shipped to those places either.

“Poultry is pretty much accepted as a good, desirable food worldwide, regardless of cultural differences,” Lacy said. “It’s a global food product. There’s a demand for our students in the state of Georgia, the U.S. and internationally. We’ve sent graduates to virtually every continent. If you want to see the world, you can do it without having to join the Navy.”

The poultry science department, which offers majors in poultry science and avian biology, doesn’t “train people to be chicken farmers,” he said. “We train live production specialists, processing plant managers, breeding program supervisors, pharmaceutical researchers, vaccine producers, salespeople, quality control specialists, research assistants and technicians for the USDA.”

Even with an average starting salary of $35,000 and potential for rapid advancement, there aren’t enough students to fill poultry science-related jobs. Currently, 23 UGA students hold seats as poultry science majors. Avian biology has 17. About 300 students nationwide are studying to be poultry scientists, and only six universities – UGA, Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State, North Carolina State and Texas A&M – still offer a poultry science degree. There used to be 40 schools with such programs.

“There are jobs now that seem to be the hot jobs – journalism, business, law, medicine," Lacy said. "Somehow we’ve got to get poultry science into that hot job category. It’s a great field to be in if you’re interested in biology and animals and want to do something that will benefit people.”

(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)

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