Talk to the average farmer today about how he got started in farming and he will tell you about working with his dad on their family farm from a very young age. He will reminisce about doing chores before school and after school. He will talk about spending summers detasseling corn and skipping school during planting and harvest. This is a reality that barely exists today. Comparatively few young people today grow up on working farms, and even many of those who do will not be destined for a life in production agriculture. While there is a core of talented young people who will have the chance to take over the family farm or marry into a farming operation, the majority of rural youth today will not be the our nation’s future farmers. The overwhelming majority of young people have no idea what it is like to grow up on farm; and, for many, hands-on physical labor is not something with which they have a lot of experience. This is at the heart of our current educational crisis according to one educational expert. He says our educational system puts too much emphasis on learning and too little on doing.
Dr. Bill Symonds, with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and who heads up a program called “Pathways to Prosperity,” advocates a restructuring of the American education system. The “one size fits all” model that characterizes American education typically encourages students to earn bachelor’s degrees even though today, as Symonds points out, the percentage of Americans who actually earn bachelor’s degrees by age 27 is still quite small — only 30 percent. Meanwhile, 42 percent of the nation’s 27-year-olds have no more than a high school degree. He said the U.S. has the highest college dropout rate in the world. This doesn’t mean that young adults should no longer be encouraged to earn advanced degrees. In fact, Symonds says it is quite the opposite. In the future, most young adults will need post-secondary education in order to find good-paying jobs. However, millions of so-called “middle skill jobs” will require something less than a bachelor’s degree. “This suggests we need to change the way we think about education,” Symonds says. “College for all should not mean a B.A. for all.”
This is especially true in the field of agriculture. Symonds told a group of farm and agribusiness leaders, educators, and career counselors at the National FFA convention that 30% of the job openings in the U.S. require less than a 4 year degree but more than a high school diploma. He added the starting annual salary of these jobs in $35,000, on par with many positions requiring a B.A. degree. Eric Spell, with Ag Careers.com, told the group that his research indicates there are thousands of jobs in agriculture that require special skills, but not a 4 year degree.
Spell revealed that a recent survey he conducted indicated that, in the next 5 years, 1 million people currently working in agriculture plan to retire. He said those are jobs that will need to be filled. Both men agreed that, in addition to lacking the proper skills, many people entering the agriculture job market “don’t know how to work.” The lack of real-world, hands-on work is a serious issue in today’s job market. Symonds discussed the national shortage of welders; and Spell related how young people who want to work with animals all want to be veterinarians, rather than work with livestock in a production setting. A plant breeder at a major Indiana seed company told me he had no trouble finding agronomists, but could not find people who know how to grow and manage the plants in a field or greenhouse.
High school agriculture classes and FFA experiences are a great way to address this situation. Indiana Lt. Governor candidate Sue Ellspermann has made this a part of her campaign by promising to make ag courses part of the core 40 curriculum. Symonds points out that this is already being done in Europe, where one third of high school and college age young people are enrolled in vocational education programs.
A serious barrier to progress, however, is the misperception that this career path is less challenging or rewarding than a college degree. Spell told the FFA breakfast the story of how, when his son told his high school counselor he wanted to take ag classes, she responded, “You are too smart for those classes.” Regular readers will remember the national outcry when a Yahoo news story called agriculture one of the most worthless degrees. In our pursuit of the next scientific and technological achievement, we have failed to teach the next generation to value hands-on work.
Less than 2% of young people will ever work on a farm, only 30% will ever have a summer job. Today 50% of people under 30 are unemployed or underemployed. High school agriculture classes and some specialized post-secondary training can provide an abundant and well-paying career path for those who will be the future of our food, fiber, and fuel production system.
By Gary Truitt