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Agriculture industry is growing, but can't find white collar workers

An image problem may be keeping the agriculture industry from being able to find enough workers.
United States National Archives
An image problem may be keeping the agriculture industry from being able to find enough workers.

The Midwest’s persistently high unemployment rate isn’t expected to fall anytime soon.

But as Changing Gears' Kate Davidson reported, temporary employment agencies across the Midwest can’t seem to find enough people to fill all the open factory jobs they have waiting. These agencies are busier than they’ve been in years, because manufacturing has more open jobs than candidates willing or able to fill them.

Now, another industry finds itself in a similar position: agriculture. It's a big business all across the Midwest. In Michigan, agriculture is said to be the state’s second largest industry and is still growing.

But, Jim Byrum of the Michigan Agri-Business Association says agriculture producers can’t find enough people to fill jobs now, and he’s even more worried about the future.

“The industry demand is pretty solid, and it’s an increasingly severe problem,” Bryum says.

A large group within the agriculture industry -- white collar workers at agri-business companies -- is getting ready to retire soon. His concern is that a new generation of workers is not ready to replace those workers getting ready to leave.

The jobs being overlooked, says Bryum, are on the business side of agriculture, such as accounting, finance, logistics, marketing, and sales. For these jobs, workers don’t need a background in agriculture or experience in the industry.

Larry Zink thinks an image problem is partly to blame for agriculture's inability to recruit younger workers. Zink works to match students with major agriculture corporations at Michigan State University.

“Young people in general don’t have a lot of knowledge about what agriculture jobs are. They only see the fields," he said. "They don’t see the business side or the science side. I’d say with 97 percent of the jobs, you’re not getting your hands dirty.”

Several things might be contributing to this lack of knowledge and the aforementioned image problem. Zink said that young people might not want to move to, or work in, rural areas. It’s uncertain how this is going to change, there are no large-scale recognizable efforts to change agriculture's image among prospective workers.

Byrum, of the agriculture association, also thinks farms and agriculture companies, particularly smaller ones, are making recruitment hard on themselves. He said many could benefit from modernizing their recruitment processes.

Mark Kaltz owns a farm in Columbus, Michigan where he has 35 acres of vegetables and 24 greenhouses for houseplants. Kaltz employs 10 people, five seasonally and five year-round. All of his full-time employees live within a few miles of the farm.

When Kaltz needs to hire a new employee, he doesn’t use an agency or advertise on Craigslist, since his farm doesn’t have an internet connection. Instead, he advertises in the local paper.

Kaltz hasn’t had difficulty finding enough people to hire, but he has heard about others having trouble. Although he has no proof, he speculates other farmers may be converting labor intensive farms like his to cash crops like corn and soybeans, because these are easier crops to harvest with fewer people and more machines.

*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Share your story here to inform our coverage.