CHALLENGES IN ATTRACTING, TRAINING, AND RETAINING A WORKFORCE
Anne Bartuska, former Deputy Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), set the stage for the workshop. Pointing to findings that only 66,000 of the 4 million high school students in the early 2000s were on track to graduate college with a degree in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field, Bartuska stressed the importance of understanding why, at a systems level, students leave STEM-related tracks at various stages along the education pipeline. She also highlighted the need to foster inquisitiveness, problem-solving skills, and critical thinking in the students who do remain on these tracks.
Bartuska posited that better messaging will be important to addressing projected workforce shortfalls such as those revealed in the Purdue University study. One key challenge lies in communicating the number and diversity of job types available for candidates of all skill levels. Another lies in changing the outdated image of agriculture as “cornfields, blue jeans, and tractors” to reflect the exciting, innovative nature of the modern agriculture industry, in which workers are engaged in endeavors such as developing drone technology, creating nanoparticles from wood, and using high-tech scanners to analyze nutritional content.
Bartuska drew attention to the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Education and Workforce Development Program,1 which works to address these workforce problems by promoting STEM education in food and agriculture. This grant program is helping to create community college programs that target available jobs while reaching urban populations with 4-H clubs and opportunities to develop STEM skills. The program also supports experimental learning through schoolyard gardens, which offer STEM-related educational opportunities and impart knowledge about food. Bartuska closed by reiterating the imperative to fix the “leaky” STEM pipeline and take action to attract people to this field, where plentiful job opportunities await them.
Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, delivered the keynote address. As a self-described “outsider” to the food, agriculture, and natural resources (FANR) arena,
1 See https://nifa.usda.gov/funding-opportunity/agriculture-and-food-research-initiativeeducation-workforce-development. Accessed March 24, 2020.
Leshner offered lessons gleaned from workforce development endeavors across different fields.
Broadly, developing a workforce requires attracting the best people, training them well, and keeping them in the profession. Compensation and lifestyle issues are important to attracting and retaining high-quality workers, but so is the nature of the work. Leshner stressed the importance of offering intellectual challenges that are not only interesting but also seen as worthwhile and beneficial to humankind. Finding personal meaning in one’s work is particularly valued by millennials.
To some extent, these connections already exist for FANR. A strong argument can be made that a revitalized agriculture industry will be central to the future U.S. economy and to meeting the needs of the world’s growing population, Leshner noted, particularly in the context of a changing climate and increasing pressures on water and land resources. However, there are missed connections as well, and he suggested that the field should make a more concerted effort to recruit from outside the traditional agricultural education pipeline. “There are plant scientists who do not see their interests as intersecting with agriculture, but we need people to see those intersections,” Leshner said.
In terms of training, Leshner highlighted the important role of land-grant universities and extension programs, but questioned whether undergraduate and graduate programs are structured to meet the future needs of the field. He pointed to changes being implemented in undergraduate engineering programs as a result of introspection in that field, suggesting that agriculture programs could benefit from similar self-reflection. In addition, he noted a broader move to examine how graduate and postdoctoral programs might be redesigned to better prepare students for future careers, especially careers outside of academia. These efforts will benefit from greater collaboration between academia and industry, he said.
In closing, Leshner pointed out that stagnant funding for agriculture research in the United States has undermined the nation’s competitiveness with other countries, most notably China. Making agriculture a national priority would not only attract more scientists to the field but also increase U.S. agricultural productivity. For agriculture to become a funding priority, however, the public must recognize agriculture and the food supply as a major societal issue.
In a brief Q&A session, Leshner discussed specific challenges related to attracting women and younger people to the field. Participants also considered the role of scientific societies; Leshner suggested one valuable role for societies could be to increase awareness of the outcomes expected from investments in agriculture research as a way to indirectly advocate for increased funding. He added that scientific societies can also work to improve public perceptions of the importance of agriculture, and noted that even the terms used to describe the field—food, agriculture, and natural resources—may be too cumbersome and undercut the ability to resonate with the broader public. Working with communication experts to better frame the field could help, he suggested.
PERSPECTIVES FROM GOVERNMENT, INDUSTRY, AND ACADEMIA
Jo Handelsman, former Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, offered a government perspective on the issue. She emphasized that attracting a new and more diverse generation of scientists will be critical to advancing FANR fields and highlighted potential mechanisms to achieve this goal.
Science works better with a diverse group of contributors and a creative mix of ideas. To this end, Handelsman said, it is vital to invite the rest of the science world into FANR endeavors. One reason agriculture has not adequately reached scientists from other fields is a perception problem: Attracting people of diverse backgrounds is difficult when neither the public nor many scientists understand that agriculture involves a set of complex and fascinating systems and not just the end products that people consume and use.
The workforce problem is exacerbated by a downward spiral that occurs as training programs shrink while job vacancies rise. Pointing to the low numbers of graduate students in plant breeding as an example, Handelsman explained that a shortage in graduate students can lead to fewer plant breeding programs and eventually fewer faculty members to train future generations. Training grants offer a viable way to improve the incentives in agriculture education, she said, adding that new types of training grants could help address new integrative science needs. For example, interdisciplinary research could be encouraged by requiring training of plant breeders in computational science.
To reach students earlier in the pipeline, Handelsman emphasized the need to expose more undergraduates to agriculture science and issues, such as through research classes in which students actively address real-life problems. She described soil characterization classes available at North Carolina State University as an example and suggested that agriculture educators develop courses that could be made available across the academic system—from community colleges, to land-grant colleges, to other academic institutions. This type of undergraduate exposure to agriculture could broaden the swath of society that understands the challenges—and appeal—of agriculture, she added.
Michael Patrick, former Human Resources Director at DuPont, provided an industry perspective. He began by underscoring the immense challenge of feeding the world in the coming decades. If the world population grows beyond 9 billion by 2050, as projected, then people will require, over the next 30–40 years, roughly the same amount of food that was produced in the previous 10,000 years combined. In addition, climate change, migration flows, political instability, economic transformations, and urbanization all will affect how and where food is produced and distributed.
The complexity of this challenge, Patrick said, demands looking beyond obvious target areas for innovation. Technology will play an essential role in
addressing food security through advances in seed genetics, large-scale transportation of agricultural commodities, and mechanization in the field, as well as other changes to how food is produced, processed, and consumed. In an increasingly urbanized world, extended shelf life will become more important, he suggested, as will careful attention to water supply and the dwindling availability of land.
To meet these needs, Patrick said, companies focusing on agriculture will need diverse talent that includes farmers, scientists, and agronomists as well as experts in food manufacturing, specialty ingredients, packaging, global health, development, communications, information technology, and engineering. Future employees should also be prepared to work in large cross-functional teams.
Patrick described three key barriers to workforce development:
- Lack of awareness. Many people lack an understanding of where food comes from, how it is grown, and how it gets to the plate. Perceptions are further complicated by misinformation and resistance to biotechnology. Patrick stressed the importance of communicating the need for conventional, organic, and biotechnology-based approaches to meet food demands for a growing population.
- Complexity and technological sophistication. An increasingly high level of skill and advanced training will be required to solve tomorrow’s FANR challenges. In particular, the STEM Food & Ag Council 2014 Annual Report2 noted the need for expertise in plant and soil science, mechanization and engineering, life sciences, food science and technology, economic business and management, and animal science. Although agricultural universities experienced a nearly 30 percent enrollment increase from 2005 to 2013, industry demand is 12 times greater than the number of graduates being produced.
- A diversity gap in higher education. An analysis by AgCareers.com3 found that enrollment in agriculture-related areas at 4-year institutions between 2010 and 2012 included just 7 percent Hispanic students, 5 percent African American students, and 4 percent Asian students. Over the past 20 years, 80 percent of whites enrolled in higher education have attended the 500 top-ranked schools in the United States, while 75 percent of minority students attended schools that were not in the top 500. Affordability and financial aid have important roles to play in closing this gap, and must be addressed not only in 2- and 4-year colleges but also in certification programs.
2 See https://www.agri-pulse.com/ext/resources/pdfs/s/t/e/r/t/STEM_Food_Ag_Council_Report.pdf. Accessed March 24, 2020.
3 See https://www.agcareers.com/newsletters/Enrollment & Employment Outlook 2013 Final.pdf. Accessed March 24, 2020.
Academic institutions can help overcome these workforce challenges by increasing exposure to career disciplines related to food and agriculture before, during, and after college, Patrick said. In addition, incorporating these topics into teacher training would help encourage teachers to expose students to agricultural fields. To help ensure that educational experiences translate into viable career paths, Patrick suggested implementing curricula based on competencies defined by industry to ensure that students gain the skills that employers seek. Finally, to increase diversity in the workforce Patrick suggested that diversity programming should be expanded into middle and high schools with a focus on providing minority students with the support structure, skills, and rigor to succeed in college. He added that universities also need to address how they recruit minorities so that more students with diverse backgrounds will consider opportunities in FANR.
Providing an academic perspective, Linda Katehi, former Chancellor of the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), highlighted ways that educational institutions can shift their approaches to better meet the needs of students and society. After a decade-long reorganization, the UC Davis College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences began to offer degrees aligned with major social problems such as global disease biology, poverty, and food and nutrition. The college is now seeing faster growth in applications and enrollment than any other school across the university. The change has also helped attract a more diverse student body; women comprise 71 percent of the incoming class, and the percentage of minorities doubled to more than 30 percent. This success story illustrates how tying degrees to solving specific real-world problems can attract students to the field, Katehi said.
When the focus shifts from the discipline to the problem, the need for interdisciplinary collaboration becomes clear. In addition to realigning degrees around problems, the college also created a curriculum that is defined by an interdisciplinary, problem-solving-based learning experience. Katehi highlighted a variety of student-led projects illustrating this approach. One collaboration among undergraduates in agriculture, engineering, biotechnology, chemistry, and other majors developed an enzyme-based electrical sensor to determine the quality of olive oils. Another student group developed a prototype, low-cost, net zero–energy home for underserved farm workers. For students focused on poverty, a program called Poverty Alleviation Through Action supports opportunities for students to work with nongovernmental organizations on specific problems in Africa, India, and South America.
As the UC Davis experience demonstrates, today’s students are attracted to opportunities to make an impact on global issues such as food security, food access, widespread poverty, and social instability, Katehi said. Providing students with these opportunities requires shifting to curriculums that are centered across three pillars: problem solving, student interest, and the research and scholarship needs in the disciplines associated with the college. Katehi acknowledged that, although the tools to make this shift exist, it can be challenging for faculty to change their relationship with students and to broaden the technology-oriented focus of their curricula.