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Agriculture Becoming Top Career Choice for Students

According to a recent Hoover Institute poll of 1,000 Californians, strengthening the economy and improving the job situation topped their priority list. While the state’s job market may still seem bleak to most, there are unique workforce shortages that are yielding high-wage regional career opportunities.

But they’re not in the tech, medical or service industries that might first come to mind. One of the brightest spots in California’s job market is in agriculture, an industry that is quickly becoming one of the most popular career choices today.

Agriculture and food manufacturing is one of California’s largest industries, now grossing more than $44 billion a year, which generates at least $100 billion in related economic activity. In 2012, agriculture employed more than 400,000 Californians. There are currently more than 80,500 farms and ranches in the state, covering approximately 25.4 million acres of land.

California has been the most productive agricultural state for more than 50 years, accounting for 15 percent of national receipts for crops and 7.1 percent of the U.S. revenue for livestock products. With the world population expected to grow by a few billion in 35 years, California’s agriculture industry is expected to expand considerably to meet increased demand.

This is great news for California, and the agriculturally-rich central and northern regions of the state, but there is just one problem: currently there are not enough specialized agricultural workers to meet this growing demand, according to Greg O’Sullivan, deputy sector navigator of agriculture, water and environmental technology for Doing What Matters For Jobs and the Economy, a workforce program created by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

Agriculture becoming top career choice for students

“Most people think agriculture is all farmers and ranchers, but there are more than 200 high-wage professional or specialized jobs such as crop and soil scientists, veterinarians, microbiologists, irrigation or bioprocessing engineers, environmental analysts, commodity traders and business managers,” said O’Sullivan. “Unfortunately, many of those existing workers are retiring soon, and right now there is little awareness about these great career opportunities and few people pursuing these fields to replace them.”

O’Sullvian, whose job it is to help identify workforce skill gaps and attract new workers into the agriculture field, works to connect private sector businesses with community colleges to design pathways to degrees and certificates that will produce the next generation of local agriculture workers.

O’Sullivan is responsible for California’s far north region including Shasta, Del Norte, Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Plumas, Sierra, Tehama, Lassen, Modoc, Siskiyou and Trinity counties – where agriculture accounts for nearly 295,000 jobs and 4,845 business firms. The agriculture industry in the far north region also exports 89 percent of its agricultural products to domestic and international markets, supplies about 36 percent of the locally grown products, and in 2012, generated more than $9 billion in revenue.

With a lot of potential to be an agricultural leader in the state, O’Sullivan has been working in these counties the past year to develop education programs that address each area’s top workforce shortages. These shortages are identified by the private sector and the number of consistent job openings that cannot be filled due to the lack of skilled applicants. Some of the occupations in high demand of workers right now include pest control advisors (PCA), food safety officers, farm managers and food manufacturing first-line production and operation supervisors, which all earn annual salaries starting at $40,000.

“Doing What Matters For Jobs and the Economy is helping small rural colleges in the Far North prioritize science and skill-based programs that will provide direct pathways into high employment agricultural occupations,” said O’Sullivan. “Butte College, Lassen College, Shasta College, and College of the Siskiyous are all developing new agriculture curriculum in interesting water and agriscience subjects that we hope will inspire students to enter the field and become their foundation for a certificate or degree.”

Butte College in Oroville, is working on developing an online weed science course and lab that will fulfill one of the required courses to become a pest control advisor. Discussions are also underway to make the weed science lab mobile, which will make it available to students at other regional community colleges. Butte College currently offers associate degrees, transferable credits and certificate programs in agriculture business, agriculture science, environmental studies, environmental horticulture and mechanized agriculture.

In Susanville, Lassen College recently began working with a major irrigation company to build new curriculum around irrigation management and water conservation. The new irrigation curriculum create a new certificate program that allow students to become pivot irrigation technicians.

Since the beginning of the year, faculty at College of the Siskiyous have been in the process of bringing back several introductory agriculture courses that were deactivated several years ago.

This past fall, Shasta College was the first to launch a full-scale pest control advisor (PCA) preparation program that will allow students to become licensed PCAs in approximately two years.

The Doing What Matters For Jobs and the Economy program has provided these community colleges grant funding, strategic guidance on identifying labor priorities and opportunities, and industry resources to assist in developing new curriculum modules that will expand their agricultural course offerings. The new curriculum modules will give students access to the classes they need to pursue professional certifications or transfer on to four-year universities to complete a degree.

O’Sullivan continues to reach out to businesses and educators to look for new opportunities to create effective community college programs that will attract new workers, lessen unemployment and create excitement about the agriculture industry.

“As we educate people about modern agriculture, they are realizing there is more to the field than just farming,” said O’Sullivan. “There are many linear disciplines in the support, production and trade of agriculture that offer many rewarding days working outdoors and high-paying career paths.”

Contact Greg O’Sullivan at 530.242.7630 or gosullivan@ShastaCollege.edu.

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