With the world’s demand for food expected to surge by 2050 amid strong population growth, the future looks bright for college graduates with agriculture-related majors. But for those seeking to study food or plant science, water management or even business, there’s an added incentive: a chance to “do well” by doing good work.
“Food is such a hot topic in our society, and it’s only going to get hotter with population growth worldwide,” said Michael Gaul, career services director at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. From developing niche organic products to monitoring drones and other technologies in the field, it’s no longer the agriculture sector of yesteryear. “Students are coming out of here with great jobs,” he said, “and they can be at the forefront of all these new developments out in the market.”
Estimates from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization show that, by mid-century, the world population of 9.7 billion will need 70 percent more food than today. Factor in the aging agricultural workforce, demand for new products, and the goal of sustainable land use, and it’s no surprise that experts predict solid growth in key agriculture occupations.
Through 2020, the United States will have approximately 58,000 annual openings in agriculture, food, and renewable resources that require a bachelor’s degree, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Purdue University. Co-author Marcos Fernandez of Purdue said that points to college graduates having a choice of jobs. “It’s a great time to be part of agriculture. Students want to change the world but also want to enjoy doing it,” he said.
Hot Jobs List
One area leading the way is food science, where jobs can range from quality control in a production plant to developing new products such as meatless meat or quality convenience foods. These scientists also spend time improving the taste of existing foods through new recipes and approaches. “Food science is an area where we need more graduates,” said Richard Cavaletto, executive associate dean at the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at California Polytechnic State University. Through 2026, food science jobs are expected to increase by 7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “It’s an $80 billion industry and there is always a need.”
While a bachelor’s degree is typically sufficient for most food science jobs, plum assignments in product research and development of new foods may require a master’s degree, experts say. However, a two-year associate degree often is enough to gain a first job in areas such as food safety. “Not every job needs a four-year bachelor’s degree,” Cavaletto noted. Given a high interest in consumer health, food safety jobs are increasingly vital in the U.S. food economy, he said.
Another emerging area is precision agriculture, in which technology helps promote data-driven decisions in planting, crop cycle planning, use of chemicals, and other areas. Individuals in these jobs will use GPS systems, drones, and other technologies to gather data to help determine the most cost-effective and highest-yield planting strategies. Technicians also are responsible for managing new precision tools, such as those with the intelligence to remove weeds without disturbing nearby seeds. Given concerns about sustainable land use, these technicians also study strategies to reduce fungicides and pesticides and to test environmentally friendly fertilizers.
“Precision agriculture has grown by leaps and bounds,” Fernandez said. This sub-sector draws young people interested in learning to operate drones and other high-tech innovations, but the day-to-day assignments are more detailed. “It’s not just about technology such as robotics and drones. It’s about interpreting the vast amount of data available,” he said, including the ability to analyze crop yields, weather patterns, and historical data.
Animal science also remains strong, with career paths that include veterinary medicine, sales, and technicians in settings from production plants to zoos. “It’s typically our largest major,” Gaul said, largely because of interest in veterinary medicine – although not all who start out on a pre-vet track later go to veterinary school. One reason may be the cost of graduate medical training, which can approach $60,000 a year, he said. In some cases, those in animal sales and technician jobs can earn nearly as much as veterinarians without the excess debt. Animal science graduates do everything from caring for companion animals to monitoring the health of large animals used in food production – an area that continues to evolve through innovations such as robotic milking of cows.
Experts also say not to forget about agriculture business, a sub-sector that includes food, seed, and equipment salespeople and those who serve as agricultural lending officers in regional banks. “Business is our second-largest program in the School of Agriculture, and it’s at a 35-year high in enrollment. Students come out of there with great jobs,” said Gaul. One reason is the rapid aging of the sales and lending force in the Midwest. He related one example of a recent female student who had offers from three different banks at graduation. About 90 percent of agriculture business grads at Iowa State have jobs lined up before they graduate. “If they make job hunting a priority, it’s not unusual for them to have multiple offers,” he added.
Employers continue to hire in plant science and horticulture, where new hires work in labs, greenhouses, recreation and sports programs, and landscaping. Internships are plentiful to help gain skills for entry-level employment. “It’s mind-boggling the quality of internships that students can get at prestigious golf courses,” Gaul noted. But some of the fastest-growing areas in this niche include managing sports turf fields, either at the school or professional levels.
Some plant science jobs may span multiple disciplines, such as a greenhouse manager who also can monitor indoor food production in cold climates. This trend is emerging in the northeastern United States in greenhouses and other indoor environments, said Cameron Faustman, interim dean of the School of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources at the University of Connecticut. “That’s an emphasis that I see growing over time,” he said. “People want to maximize the use of land on a year-round basis.”
And with water resources a major concern, particularly in the western United States, specialized training in natural resources and water management gives professionals an advantage in the job market. In response to water challenges, Cavaletto sees more cooperation across academic departments and industries on this issue.
Cross-sector knowledge also is increasingly useful as companies seek to maximize food production and more Americans express concern about the quality and healthfulness of what they eat. “The intersection of health, agriculture, and the environment means that many professionals need interdisciplinary training. That’s where the challenges are,” Faustman said. “We connect everything from the seed in the ground to the soil to the health implications of the food that’s produced on it.”
Salaries and Demographics
Technology and food science jobs lead the way in starting salaries, based on the most current estimates. Every year, Iowa State’s Gaul conducts a survey of starting salaries for graduates from 20 leading agricultural universities, and his 2017 data show a robust market. Technology and biosystems engineering led the way with starting pay of $53,970, and this field includes jobs in production management, packaging, quality control and assurance, and precision agriculture. “Salaries in this area, particularly quality assurance, have increased in recent years because demand is strong,” he said.
Crop science, which includes agronomy, sales, farm operations, and other precision agriculture jobs, was next at $44,970, closely followed by food science and nutrition at $44,740. Other jobs such as horticulture and agriculture education – another area hard hit by retirements – featured starting salaries at or near $40,000 (see below).
Starting Salaries in Key Agricultural Sectors
Technology and biosystems engineering: $53,970
Agronomy and crop sciences: $44,970
Food science and nutrition: $44,740
Agriculture education: $40,780
Horticulture (golf course/garden management & landscape): $37,888
Animal/dairy science: $36,630
Biological science: $35,570
Environmental science, fisheries, forestry: $33,440
Source: Iowa State University, 2016/2017 Entry-level Salary Information
for Recent Graduates in Agriculture and Related Disciplines
But employers often need to look beyond graduates of agricultural colleges to fill vacancies. As noted in the USDA/Purdue study, these colleges expect to provide only enough graduates to fill 61 percent of annual professional openings through 2020. For the remainder of job vacancies, companies likely will look to those with more general biology and microbiology degrees, yet this comes with some added risk. “Agriculture majors do a lot of lab and field work, and it gives them essential training,” Fernandez said. Hiring general biology majors can help meet hiring targets, but those individuals may need substantial training. “If you have to do a lot of training on the job, it hurts your profitability,” he added.
Given the current climate, experts have seen fundamental changes in recruiting as it’s not unusual for ag students to start interviewing and receiving job offers in the fall of their senior year, instead of spring as in past decades. “I think the hiring climate is as good as it’s been in a while,” Faustman said.
Another major change in agriculture jobs is the growing diversity of the workforce. Fernandez noted that 60 percent of Purdue agricultural students are female, and experts from other universities echoed this view as well. “The change in demographics is very noticeable,” he said. “Colleges of agriculture around the country are attracting predominantly female students. It’s a different era.” Animal science, agriculture education, and wildlife are all among the majority-female enrolled programs, while males still hold the advantage in agriculture engineering and forestry.
Yet while some hiring trends in agriculture continue to evolve, it’s clear to many that the upward trend in job prospects should continue. Given the future concern about the quantity and quality of food and the use of limited natural resources, the sector is primed for growth. “People are closer to their food than they’ve ever been before,” said Faustman, and this spurs interest in ag careers. “They want to be at the forefront of all these exciting new opportunities.”
Caption for top photo: A degree in agriculture business can pave the way to employment in sales and in lending. Credit: Ian Allenden
This article was originally published in the 2018 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.