Agricultural skilled trades offer job opportunities for Michiganders

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Other stories in this series can be found here.

Last summer, Nathan Beyerlein, a 21-year-old Delta College student used satellite technology to alert farmers to problems in their fields. As an intern with a company called Crop Production Services, he scouted over 60,000 acres last year, looking for issues like bug damage, nutrient deficiencies, and inadequate irrigation.

"I was a field scout," he says. "We used satellite imagery. We'd check iPads, and geo-reference the area ... We'd take pictures and record all the data. I'd send that to my boss, and they'd figure out what the issues were and fix them."

Beyerlein grew up in Reese, Michigan, just north of Frankenmuth. His grandparents ran their own farm, cultivating corn, cucumbers, and sugar beets, so he was familiar with farming. But after graduating high school, he was unsure of what he wanted to do with himself. 

After taking some courses in welding and electrical work, he discovered an ag training program at Delta College, not too far from Bay City. The program clicked with him—he especially liked the small class sizes, hands-on training opportunities, and local ag industry leaders involved in the teaching process. Now Beyerlein has his sights set on a career in agriculture, as a field scout, agricultural salesman, or agronomist.

Happily, his prospects look pretty good right now. Employers in Michigan's ag sector are hungry for skilled workers like Beyerlein. The agricultural trades are facing a workforce deficit in the state, especially with high-tech occupations like agri-business management, crop and soil scientists, animal husbandry, GPS-aided fertilizer and crop-protection materials application, site-specific soil sampling, logistics, and transportation.

It's a situation the state is trying to remedy.

The market for skilled trades

Farming is big business here in the Great Lakes State. Nationwide, Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the nation producing over 300 different kinds of commodities on a commercial basis. Food and agriculture contribute over $101.2 billion annually to Michigan's economy, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau. 

In recent years, the total number of those working in agriculture in the USDA Lake region—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—has fluctuated; according to the USDA, the total of farm workers hired in the region for the month of April dipped from 53,000 in 2014 to 47,000 in 2015 and then rose all the way up to 58,000 in 2016.

That said, workers are very much needed in Michigan fields and food processing right now. Currently, there's a labor shortage in the industry, due in part to increasing consumer demand for Michigan products. That's why the state is working hard to grow the workforce.

"Closing the skills gap is arguably our state's top economic challenge," says Jennifer Holton, the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development's director of communications. "We know employers are desperate for talent, especially in the skilled professional trades."

This is where education comes in, but that doesn't automatically mean future workers need to spend several years at a university. While skilled professional trades are labor-oriented careers that require specialized training, in many circumstances a bachelor's degree—or for that matter, even a two-year associate's degree—is not what's needed.

"Many jobs in the agriculture cluster require on-the-job training, but not necessarily advanced education," Holton says. "Around 15 percent of jobs in agriculture require at least an associate's degree. This is well below the all-industries average rate of 25 percent."

Michigan helps train its workforce

With this in mind, the state is taking steps to better prepare Michigan's workforce by investing resources to familiarize students with the trades and working with employers to connect them to opportunities.

In his most recent budget, Governor Rick Snyder called for an extra $10 million for Michigan's Going Pro programs, which help provide training for the skilled trades. If approved by the legislature, the total investment of Going Pro services for would be $40.9 million for the 2017-18 fiscal year.

For those interested in agriculture, there is the Michigan Advanced Technician Training program, or MAT-Squared, which offers college tuition paid for by an employer, on-the-job training with pay, an associate degree, and a job upon successful completion of the program. MAT-Squared currently offers concentrations in Mechatronics or Computer Numerical Control, which have applications in the ag industry. (See a video on the program here.)

Through its Community College Skilled Trades Equipment Program, the state has also provided $50 million for 18 state community colleges to obtain state-of-the-art equipment to assist students in gaining the skills they need to get what Holton describes as "high-wage, high-skill, and in-demand jobs" upon graduation.
Michigan State University also plays a key role in this work. The school's East Lansing campus is home to an Agricultural Technology Institute that instructs students in subjects like Agricultural Industries, Dairy Management, Electrical Technology, Fruit, Vegetable and Organic Horticulture Management, and Horse Management. 

Students can opt for a two-year or four-year degree. A 2.0 minimum grade point is required for the program, which is currently accepting applications for fall of 2017.

"All students are required to complete an internship within those programs," says the institute's director, Dr. Randy Showerman. "Students will also in many cases do a clerkship ... to make sure they have the skills necessary to be successful with the internship." 

Beyond this, the institute is also partnering with community colleges like Delta, where Beyerlein attends.

"[We're] offering MSU programs at community colleges, taught by individuals who are approved adjunct faculty to the university," says Showerman. "They're teaching our courses at the location where the community colleges are located." 

The institute currently offers courses at seven community colleges and plans to add three more in the next month. Its programs have an impressive success rate. Ninety percent of students find employment upon graduation and 65 percent go back to their home communities.

Beyerlein is certainly satisfied with the education he's getting. Asked if he has any advice for those considering getting trained for the agricultural trades, he says: "Go for it and don't look back. There's always going to be jobs. You can pretty much go anywhere in the country and you'll be in need."

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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