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Help wanted: Michigan agriculture can't fill jobs


It seems like agriculture in Michigan just can't catch a break. First the drought, now a growing labor shortage.

The industry is desperately seeking highly skilled workers with 4 year degrees. Think supply chain managers or grain market analysts. But these days, not enough college students are going into agriculture. 

Larry Zink is an industry specialist at Michigan State University. "The ag and food industry is not a sexy industry. So it's not a place that people typically look for employment that are not from kinda the rural sectors. And the rural population is getting smaller."

Yet Zink says he's got a great pitch: study agriculture, do a few internships, and you'll graduate with a good paying job in a booming sector.

So far, it's not selling. "You get a student, let me say from Detroit, coming to Michigan State for a finance degree. They're thinking Wall Street, they're thinking New York. They're not thinking Monsanto or Archer Daniel Midland or Cargill.”

Still,  plenty of unsexy industries have linked up with community college programs. So why hasn't agriculture taken a few notes from manufacturing and green energy sectors?

That's finally starting to happen, says Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association. "Community Colleges are waking up to it, no doubt about it. So are four-year colleges. The challenge is, we need people today." 

While many available ag and food sector jobs require four-year degrees, Byrum says community colleges can help fill the void by offering two-year programs,  with students completing degrees at the university level.

Those programs are still too scarce, he says, in part because industry leaders haven't done a good job of communicating with educators about the need for skilled agriculture workers. And he says many schools are better attuned to job markets in metro areas, rather than the rural communities where lots of food sector companies are based.  

Byrum says half of all agriculture managers will retire in the next few years. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.