Agriculture Industry Certification Paves Way for High-Skilled, Trade-Related Careers

Agriculture Industry Certification Paves Way for High-Skilled, Trade-Related Careers

According to USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Purdue University, employers have 57,900 job openings in agriculture and related fields each year. But just 35,400 students graduate annually with a bachelor's degree or higher in agriculture. If you make a direct mathematical correlation, there is a shortage of 22,500 ag graduates compared to the needs of the industry. Certainly, we need more students pursuing agriculture and life sciences.

Meanwhile, nearly two million college students will graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree this year. Will they find a job? If they majored in agriculture they would. In fact, some biotech companies have begun recruiting students during their junior year because the seniors in the agriculture and life sciences have already committed to an employer after weighing multiple offers.

Arizona Farm Bureau spent the last year working with teachers and other industry organizations to develop the Arizona Agriculture Skills and Assessment Certificate (AASAC). This industry certificate, through a variety of qualifications, establishes that a student has the attitude, perseverance, and skills to succeed in the workplace. The certification will serve as a good indication for potential employers that this individual will show up, work hard, and can learn the on-the-job skills necessary to be a valuable employee, regardless of whether they have decided to further their education through university or trade certification.

We have the jobs; how do we get the people?

If you ask Queen Creek High School agriculture teacher, Justen Ollendick, he will tell you that we must get kids interested early. “If we can get students interested in agriculture during their freshman year, we have a better chance of them staying in the program for all four years,” he explains.

Students have a lot of program options when entering high school and their Freshman year is the year of discovery. Ollendick believes, “If we had four years of funding for ag programs [there are currently three: sophomore, junior and senior] we could better provide the newer technologies for our programs and draw students who might not have considered agriculture as a career path.”

The reality is technology has and will continue to be more central to even the most traditional roles in agriculture and there is already a shortage of workers with the appropriate skills. The key is showing students the opportunities so they will enroll in the classes to gain the skills.

Funding an Opportunity

It’s no secret that K-12 education is gearing up to be one of the most controversial issues of this legislative session. Improving our State’s schools is a top priority among legislators. At the same time, lawmakers are also trying to find ways to boost the State’s economy by attracting industry, jobs, and skilled labor to fill them. And, right at the intersection of these two priorities lies a golden opportunity for Career and Technical Education. 

In recent years, industries that felt the decline of the late-2000s recession the hardest have bounced back in a big way. The agriculture, construction, manufacturing, and other industrial sectors are thrilled to be growing and thriving again, but now they face a different problem: lack of labor to fill the jobs that come with expansion.

There are a few ways to explain the labor crisis. For one, today’s educational environment tends to look down on trade-related careers as “lesser” options to college-degree required jobs. Moreover, even those who are encouraged to enter careers in our primary economic sectors don’t always have the training necessary to keep up with the advanced, technology-driven industries of today. Take agriculture, for instance: an employee in a modern-day milking barn doesn’t just need to have a great work ethic, he or she also needs to know about automated milking technology, how to comply with complex food safety rules, and maybe even how to use robotic technology on a milking carousel. A tractor driver needs to know how to program a GPS unit to do the driving for them. And for a farm owner, it costs valuable time and money to train a brand-new employee to handle all the technology that’s become essential to making inputs more efficient and realize higher yields.

By teaching our youth the skills they need to be successful at these jobs, before they even step foot on an employer’s property, Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs are the ideal way to bridge the gap between the labor we need and the young people who are looking for long-term, fulfilling careers – right here in our own backyard. CTE also offers students access to Career and Technical Student Organizations (CTSO) such as the FFA. The combination of agricultural knowledge and skills learned in class and the leadership skills developed through FFA produce employees that can step into these open positions and take us into the future.

Sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Allen, SB1269 would restore 9 th grade funding for CTE programs in five crucial areas: agriculture, automotive technology, construction, engineering, and manufacturing. Focusing on these five areas not only targets the industries where we most need the labor, it also helps keep the cost of the legislation to a minimum.

At a luncheon on January 4, a bipartisan group of legislators, business leaders, and educators came together to voice support for this proposal. Representatives from each of the industries impacted by the bill explained how restoring complete CTE programs will encourage bright and talented young people to pursue careers in these sectors. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle explained how the bill will increase both educational and economic success for the state. And educators voiced their support of a bill that puts more money into the programs that are already working to ensure college and career readiness for Arizona’s students.

Certified Quality

The Arizona Farm Bureau (AZFB) feels it is important to play a role in providing quality employees for the future, while helping our High School ag programs keep their funding and succeed today. To this effort, AZFB spent the last year working with teachers and other industry organizations to determine where assistance was most needed. The result: the Arizona Agriculture Skills and Assessment Certificate (AASAC). This industry certificate, through a variety of qualifications, establishes that a student has the attitude, perseverance, and skills to succeed in the workplace. It is a good indication for potential employers that this individual will show up, work hard, and can learn the on-the-job skills necessary to be a valuable employee, regardless of whether they have decided to further their education through university or trade certification. Furthermore, the AASAC will serve as a tool to help Joint Technical Education Districts (JTED) to meet the requirement of offering industry certificates -- a requirement for legislative funding -- and will provide schools with the necessary certificates to help them achieve higher grades on the A-F School Accountability Plan.

As the AASAC gears up to be released this month, teachers across the State are anxious to provide this new certification to their students. April Scibienski, ag teacher at Desert Edge High School is excited and eager for the AASAC’s release. “I will encourage my students to attain the AZFB Certificate because it will add an industry-validated stamp of approval to the education they received as an agriculture education program completer. In addition to boosting a student's confidence the certificate will give their future employers the confidence of knowing this student committed themselves to study and improving their skills in agriculture above and beyond their peers.”

More information regarding the AASAC is available online at www.azfb.org. Questions can be directed to Katie Aikins at katieaikins@azfb.org.

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