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Demand for agriculture graduates on the rise across the nation, USDA reports By Jeffrey H. Dorfman

Many parents and children today worry about both what college costs and whether after spending all that money they will be able to get a good job. In general, college graduates do get jobs after graduation — the unemployment rate for college grads is under 3 percent — but still families of current and approaching college students are concerned. One easy way to reduce the risk of post-graduate un- or underemployment is to gain skills in a field with a shortage of skilled workers. A great example of what students might study is food and agricultural systems.

Some such job skills do not require a college degree; welders are in short supply and certified welders can earn $75,000 per year. Thus, learning to weld would be a smart career move for some and financial aid for technical schools teaching these skills is generally abundant. However, for those not interested in welding as a career and committed to pursuing a college education, studying for jobs in the food and fiber sector would be a great plan.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts that over the next five years the annual demand for college graduates in agriculture and food industries will be 57,900 jobs per year. Unfortunately, American agricultural colleges (such as my own College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia) will only be producing about 35,400 graduates per year.

Right now, this shortfall in college graduates with majors in agriculture are being filled by graduates with other, related majors. But the employers would prefer graduates with more background in agriculture.

Further, these jobs are not all in direct production agriculture (that is, farming), which accounts for only 15 percent of these jobs. The other 85 percent are in the broader food and fiber industry. In fact, 50 percent of these jobs are in business and management.

For example, food processors such as Campbell’s Soup or Tyson Food need people to manage their production facilities, marketing campaigns, and finances. Twelve percent of the jobs are in agricultural education, communication or government agencies that regulate and support the food and fiber industries. As agriculture becomes more global, there are good jobs available for students with an interest in international finance and policy and also for those who can speak a foreign language.

The remaining 27 percent of these agricultural jobs are in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). These jobs require strong scientific, quantitative, and technical training, and employers are also looking for familiarity with agricultural and food systems.

For example, a large meat or poultry processing company will likely prefer a geneticist who is an animal or poultry science major with genetics training. A food processing company looking for a food safety specialist will choose a food science major over a microbiologist with no specific training in food safety.

You get the idea; many of these jobs are ones that non-agriculture majors can fill, but agriculture majors already know the background setting and the technical jargon for the industries that are hiring. Plus, these jobs pay well.

According to Payscale.com, operations managers within the field of agriculture earn an average of $60,600 per year, agronomists average $45,500, and IT managers in food and agricultural businesses earn an average of $78,500 per year. Across all jobs in what Payscale defines as agriculture, the starting salary averages $47,300 per year with a $5,000 annual bonus.

As an added incentive, agriculture colleges are located in state land-grant universities. That means much lower tuition than at private colleges, particularly if you attend one of the state colleges in your own state and pay in-state tuition. Thus, students can earn their degree in an agricultural field and graduate with little to no student loan debt (certainly less than if they attend a private college which typically cost $20,000 to $40,000).

So for college students, soon-to-be college students and parents hoping for a good return on their investment in tuition, think agriculture. People will always eat, so jobs in producing, processing, transporting and selling food will never go away. For good-paying, rewarding and secure employment, college students would be well-served to find a major in food and agriculture.

(This article originally ran on Forbes.com. Follow Jeff Dorfman on Twitter at @DorfmanJeffrey.)

(Jeffrey H. Dorfman is a professor of agricultural and applied aconomics with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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