Opinion: Closing the Gap Between the Precision Ag Industry and New Graduates

Opinion: Closing the Gap Between the Precision Ag Industry and New Graduates

As my time as an undergrad comes to a close, I look at the precision ag industry and I see an industry ripe for another breakout year in 2018. The industry has made great strides in the last several years, and I think, like many others in the field, that the best is yet to come. Where it’ll be five or 10 years from now is anyone’s guess, but I’ll wager that we’ll see trends like big data, machine learning in ag, and automation of farm-related tasks continue to grow rather than decline in importance.

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Agriculture is an industry that is prime for innovation in the field of labor-saving technology and labor automation in particular. Right now, one need not go any farther than this website to see that there is a lot of excitement in this space, and this will hopefully translate into the next generation of farmers, agronomists, and researchers taking up this mantle further in bringing innovative solutions to agriculture.

One thing I think precision ag companies should keep in mind is that next generation. It might be a little self-serving for me to put it that way — ok, more than a little self-serving — but this industry, like all industries, needs to keep new blood flowing in if we want to see that innovation be brought to market year after year. It may just be me, but I think that technology (and technology jobs) in ag will serve as a bulwark against demographic trends that will pinch U.S. agriculture in the future. There will always be farmers, of course, but a career in ag tech is another way to draw more young people into the industry who would otherwise would be difficult to reach. With that being said, I think there are key issues that need to be addressed when it comes to reaching that new generation of precision ag professionals.

This isn’t to say that companies aren’t trying to reach millennials — quite the opposite, in my experience — but rather, that there’s a disconnect at the university/young adult level. As this sector matures, I bet we’ll see a greater push into precision ag companies from this age group, but I think that the industry has to deal with a gap that needs to be filled.

Precision ag combines “old” with “new” — and this leads to the future labor pool for the industry to be put into two camps. The first, the “techies”, the young people interested in tech careers, are casually interested in agriculture, but typically are looking for “prestige” jobs with more traditional tech companies. The precision ag industry is, after all, still waiting on the proverbial “Uber of ag” that changes everything. Until then, the people in this camp will stick to their guns and try to make it with “established” firms doing things like IT, software development, and the like.

On the other hand, many of my peers in agricultural fields, in my observation, tend to be more inclined to follow a more traditional career path, and oftentimes are interested more so in family-owned enterprises or traditional kind of ag jobs than in small-to-medium sized companies striking out their own way in the ag technology field. Maybe it’s just a California thing, but this contrast I’ve noticed between “old” and “new” is troubling, simply because precision ag needs to attract people from both camps to meet in the middle — to close the proverbial “gap” — if we want to see continuous growth in this industry.

The question is, how do we close the “gap”? Part of it will come in due time, as more jobs open up in this sector, the adoption of various technologies becomes more widespread, and the business side of the industry continues to grow in dollar amounts and in number of firms. But it need not be just a waiting game. There are things that can be done now, and I have a few easy suggestions for people and businesses that want to see the next generation get as excited about this industry as they are:

  1. Get involved with students. One thing I’ve enjoyed about my time as an undergrad is that people in ag, regardless of which part of the industry they work in, seem to always have time to help a student with a problem if they send them an email or give them a call. If you are near a university, community college, or high school that offers an agriculture program, let a teacher or a professor know that you would be available to work on assignments with students, answer questions, or give advice on career choices or topics related to ag. Contact with industry professionals that are knowledgeable and friendly will do more to draw young people to the industry than just about anything else.
  2. Consider an internship program. Admittedly, it can be a big undertaking for your company to start up an internship program if you don’t have one already. However, the benefits of an internship program work both ways — it can be a great way in for millennials that are curious about the industry, and it can be a great way to develop talent in-house, save money on some labor expenses on entry-level positions, and add someone to your team for a while with an ear to the ground on the latest practices being taught at the college level.
  3. Make good company values a high priority. Yes, it sounds like business P.R. fluff. True, it’s a stereotype that young people want to work for companies that “give back”. But it isn’t just schmaltz — there’s a grain of truth to that, too. Showing young people that your company does care about the community is an easy, effective way to show them that they aren’t just taking up a new job — they’re doing something a little bigger than that. Not to mention, it isn’t just something that helps your company’s image – studies show that your customers like it, and employees of all ages like it too. Best of all, it’s easy and oftentimes cheap (or even free) to do — spend some time volunteering or raising funds for an organization in your community, and people will notice.

Closing this gap won’t be easy, of course – I’m not saying that a weekend at an animal shelter with your co-workers is the key to all this. However, organizations that want to make the next generation of students as passionate for the industry as their employees are can do little things, today, to help make that happen.

Do you have any thoughts, critiques, or questions you’d like to share with me? Please leave them in the comments below, or drop me a line on Twitter: @oetheric. Thanks for reading!

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Paul Overby says:

Eric, you make some good points. Part of the challenge for “new” and “old” is that a lot of ag companies are pretty mature. There was, and still is, an excitement factor in UAV’s, you may recall, and that was partly because this was new territory and was dominated by the ag equipment conglomerates. I think that buzz has worn off a bit as the practicalities and technologies start to sort themselves out, which is normal. So it is possible for their to be new ideas for new people The next big disrupter is robotics. The big guys are going to fight this tooth and nail because it takes away from their steel and tractor sales! But, if you can build smaller, light weight machines that can do a lot of the mechanical aspects autonomously, it will be a game changer! There is opportunity!

Eric Oeth says:

Hi Paul,

Thank you for the kind words about my article – I agree 100% that robotics will be among the big disruptors in the precision ag field in the future. In particular in California, where labor costs are so high and the labor pool is shrinking so rapidly, I think that this will be a huge factor in allowing growers to manage costs if precision ag firms can get the technology right. Your comment made me think of Autobot, which could be a solution in the near future for the strawberry industry here: https://www.fastcompany.com/40473583/this-strawberry-picking-robot-gently-picks-the-ripest-berries-with-its-robo-hand

Best,
Eric

Mike Kraemer says:

Hi, Eric…

My name is Mike Kraemer. I work as a member consultant for the Western Equipment Dealers Association. One of my duties is developing content for the association’s magazines. Your article on closing the precision gap is interesting and I’m writing to see if you would allow us to reprint it. We publish quarterly and our next issue is in June. PDF files of our publications are on our Web site.

I hope to hear from you. Thanks. Mike

Eric Oeth says:

Hi Mike,

Absolutely! Thank you for the interest in the article. I’ll reach out privately.

Best,
Eric

Rusty Wallace says:

Eric,

Excellent article. I’m curious to know how much interaction you’ve had with agricutural equipment dealers and, if yes, what are you hearing from them? What is their outlook, pro or con, for this next chapter in their industry?

Eric Oeth says:

Hi Rusty,

Unfortunately, that’s not something I’ve had much experience with (yet) – I did, however, find a great article about the relationships equipment dealers and manufacturers are building in the precision ag industry:
http://www.precisionag.com/service-providers/ag-retailer-equipment-dealer-improve-service-by-working-together/

Thank you for your question Rusty!

Best,
Eric