“We have 0.8 people available for every job that comes open in Kansas,” says Russell Plaschka, agribusiness development program manager for Workforce Development at the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA).
So, competition for employees is fierce across the board, but especially for agricultural employers.
Manual laborers are chasing the higher wages offered in industries like transportation, construction, hospitality and mining, forcing agriculture employers to increase wages at a faster rate to compete, according to a study from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange Division — “Help Wanted: Wage Inflation and Worker Scarcity.” The study explains how inflated wages result from scarce labor conditions.
“Wages have historically been higher in these other industries, compared to most farm labor,” explained Ben Laine, a senior economist with CoBank, when the study was released last year. “The difference now is that these jobs are much more widely available and are more in line with the background of workers coming from Mexico.”
In addition to immigration controls like tightening borders and increased immigration enforcement, birthrates in Mexico are falling, and populations are moving toward urban areas, according to CoBank. That leaves fewer people with agricultural backgrounds who would be interested in U.S. farm work.
Arguably, Kansas represents a bellwether state when it comes to the workforce challenges faced by agricultural employers in the heart of the nation’s beef cattle country.
Based on a five-year average, agriculture, food and food processing account for 42.3% of the total Kansas economy each year — $63.8 billion in economic contribution — and 12.6% of the workforce (238,148 jobs) according to KDA. Beef cattle ranching and farming lead the way in terms of economic output.
In an effort to better understand the workforce needs of agricultural employers, KDA conducted its first Kansas Agriculture Workforce Needs Assessment Survey in 2016.
Agricultural mechanics (39%) and agricultural business (38%) represented 77% of agricultural job vacancies at the time.
Potential employees out there
Plaschka, who taught vocational agriculture for 25 years, and KDA began an informal study of students participating in the state’s FFA contests each year. As of last year, 43% of students polled were interested in an animal science career pathway, followed by agribusiness (27%), plant science (10%), ag mechanics (10%), environmental services (7%), food science (2%) and natural resources (1%).
Also in 2018, Plaschka says one major job site for agriculture listed more than 2,911 jobs in Kansas.
That same year, 864 students earned agriculture degrees from Kansas Regents institutions. There were also 480 students enrolled in agriculture at 15 Kansas community and technical colleges. So, 1,344 postsecondary agriculture graduates or students, versus the 2,911 available agriculture jobs posted at one job site.
But, Plaschka emphasizes that same year, there were 150,066 students enrolled in Kansas high schools, including 12,000 in agriculture education programs; and there were 9,847 FFA members in the state.
Further, based on the Ag Careers 2018 U.S. Ag Business Job Report, Plaschka explains 69.7% of high school graduates enroll in college, but 40% don’t graduate. With that in mind, he calculates there are 10,459 Kansas high school graduates each year who attend college but don’t finish, in addition to 11,366 high school graduates who never attend college.
That represents 21,825 potential employees each year who graduate from Kansas high schools.
By the way, according to that same Ag Careers Job Report, only 43% of agriculture employers require a four-year degree.
“Where are we looking?” Plaschka asked participants at last spring’s Production Animal Consultation (PAC) Industry Summit on Rural Workforce Development.
Consider the overall number of potential employee candidates and those FFA members in Plaschka’s informal study expressing interest in jobs related to animal science.
“We have plenty of people interested in animal science jobs and industry, and plenty of students who want those jobs — but somewhere there is a disconnect.”
Bridging the experience gap
Part of it has to do with the fact there are fewer of those good ag kids graduating high school who have production experience. If they want to remain on the production side, and the opportunity exists at home, that’s where they typically go.
That represents an experience gap, according to Plaschka. But it also represents opportunity for agriculture employers.
“What experiences do those students have? How do we get them those experiences — so they understand it’s a job they might like, one they want to know more about, the jobs and careers that you have available?” Plaschka asks.
There are lots of ways — from job shadowing, to internships, to serving as a speaker or expert for the local agriculture class.
“Friona Industries employees spend time in agricultural education classrooms to help familiarize students with career opportunities in the feedlot industry,” according to the CoBank report. “The company is also helping students buy horses and tack, so they are ready to come to work after graduation.”
There’s also the immersion experience; Plaschka provides an example.
A Kansas ag equipment dealership wanted to build the pool of local ag technician candidates. Plaschka and KDA summer intern Trenton Smedley worked with the dealer to invite students from five area high schools with an interest in the career area to attend a find-it, fix-it and sell-it experience. About 30 attended.
Students had the opportunity to wait on customers, look up parts and help tear apart a hydraulic cylinder. They also tried their hand at selling. Each one got the chance to drive a tractor, something only three had ever done.
Subsequently, three expressed interest in summer internships with the dealership, and several others were thinking about an internship the following summer.
“Just by having us in there for a half a day, they may have gained three to five employees by opening their doors and giving students an authentic experience,” Plaschka explains.
“If you want these students in your business, if you want them in your feedyards or veterinary practices, you’ve got to go where they’re at before they decide where they’re going to be — when they’re sophomores, juniors and seniors in high school,” Plaschka says. “Most of the time, we wait until students go to that four-year university before we go knocking on their door.”
When you do, he suggests showing and asking, rather than simply telling them about potential job opportunities.
“Go to these schools and recruit students. Instead of asking them questions like what they want to be when they grow up, or what they want to do when they get out of school, how about showing them the kinds of problems you solve on a daily basis? How about asking them what kinds of problems they want to be a part of solving and what they want to be a part of?” Plaschka says