Ag industry hopes to grow high-tech workers
By Yanjie Wang
Michigan agriculture is struggling to find qualified workers to fill positions at all levels, and one challenge is informing potential employees that modern agriculture is a high-tech industry in need of people with the right skills, according to the Michigan Agri-Business Association.
At an egg factory, a robot counts how many eggs each chicken has laid. A computer detects the purity of each egg, and checks for cracks.
In a feed mill, a computer ensures that trucks arrive in order to load proper amount of mixed feeds for delivery to farms across the state.
At a dairy farm, a computer calculates how much milk cows can produce each day by recognizing unique IDs on their tags.
Those were what students from Montcalm Community College saw on their field trips.
Michelle Gibson, a biology instructor at the college, took her students on those trips because they didn’t know what an agricultural business looks like nowadays.
“They were just amazed by how much technology is required for our food handling system to work,” Gibson said.
And association President Jim Byrum said, “Agriculture is being revolutionized by cutting-edge technology and scientific advancements.”
New technology is driving the industry and creating the need for a variety of new skills, he said.
“One example is site-specific agriculture, which uses state-of-the-art soil sampling techniques and satellites to apply seed and fertilizer in precise ways that help get the most production from our fields,” Byrum said.
Another challenge is finding skilled and talented young people to carry the industry into the next generation.
Byrum said that employees in crop and soil sciences, agri-business management, agricultural logistics and transportation, and animal husbandry are in high demand.
Thirty percent of management-level employees in Michigan agriculture are expected to retire in the next five to 10 years, and replacements must be found quickly to avert a vacuum in leadership and skills that could hold back the entire industry, according to the association.
Harry Herbruck, vice president of operation for Herbruck Poultry Ranch Inc. in Saranac, said his company is facing a challenge in finding workers for high-technology jobs.
Contrary to the past, when human placed boxes of eggs on pallets, everything is done electronically now. However, the elimination of labor in one area created another position that needs people to take care of complicated machinery, Herbruck said.
“The troubleshooting piece of it and the maintenance component of it are more demanding than ever before,” he said.
Brett Sivec, the agronomist for Eastern Michigan Grain, a service elevator in Emmett, has similar thoughts as agriculture gets more technological.
With the increasing use of technology, the company can better ensure the correct product in the correct place, and with more efficient performance.
And companies are looking for employees with a crop and soil science background, Sivec said. Their work includes geo-referenced soil testing, operating necessary software and getting results and recommendations for the farmer.
“The position has evolved to require much more technological knowledge,” he said.
While agriculture businesses are looking forward to finding more workers, community colleges are trying to make students aware of career opportunities in the industry.
Gibson, from Montcalm Community College, said, “There are jobs from genetics to animal behavior which need to be filled and will need a college education from now on.”
Montcalm is the only community college in Michigan that offers courses in animal science, and students can transfer their credits to a four-year university, Gibson said.
Nathan Peterson, a student at Montclam, said Gibson’s class expanded his knowledge of modern-day agriculture. He is planning to pursue a bachelor’s degree in crop and soil science from Michigan State University, and then use what he learned to work for his family farm.
“The farm is very technical. The chemicals that are used require an education and certification, but everything all the way down to tilling the soil requires experience to know if you are doing it wrong,” he said.
“Farming was more local in the past, but today it is global,” he said. “Corn could be going out-of-state, or it could just as easily go to another continent.”