USDA looks to strengthen ag workforce

New efforts announced to expand and diversify U.S. agricultural workforce.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced increased federal and private-sector support to expand and diversify the U.S. agricultural workforce by increasing opportunities in education, research and outreach.

The announcement is part of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) and Rural Council initiative, America the Bountiful, a collaboration with federal agencies and private-sector stakeholders to meet the growing demand for a skilled, diverse workforce in the rapidly evolving agricultural landscape.

"The face of American agriculture is changing," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "Nearly 10% of U.S. jobs are related to agriculture, and the increasingly complex nature of production requires more training and education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the STEM fields — to stay competitive and meet the needs of a growing world for food, fuel and fiber.”

Vilsack said a report by USDA's National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) and Purdue University projects that more than 22,000 jobs in agriculture-related fields may go unfilled every year through at least 2020.

“Agricultural education needs to attract a diversity of students and keep pace with the increasingly complex nature of agricultural innovation needed to address global challenges,” a fact sheet on the initiative said. “Falling behind in agriculture is a threat to national security and must be addressed as such.”

Vilsack added, “This is a great opportunity for smart, young people to start careers in a field that addresses some of the world's most pressing challenges."

OSTP convened scientists, educators, advocates and industry representatives to examine future workforce and food security challenges. Two fundamental goals have emerged: (1) increase the number and diversity of skilled agricultural workers at all levels of education, and (2) expand research and training opportunities in areas that are experiencing particularly serious workforce shortages and are central to meeting future food needs.

During an event at USDA headquarters on Thursday, OSTP used the America the Bountiful fact sheet to outline financial and other assistance by USDA, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Science & Technology Council to support these goals. USDA's commitments to the initiative include:

  • NIFA will continue investing in graduate and post-graduate fellowships for food and agricultural research and agricultural curriculum development.
  • The U.S. Forest Service — in collaboration with the Americas for Conservation & the Arts, a Latina-founded and operated nonprofit organization, and the Green Amigos Latino Legacy — will expand the Woodsy Owl Conservation Corps to promote public awareness of opportunities for conservation and land stewardship through educational programming and service learning efforts, focusing primarily on underserved, urban youth, with a strong emphasis on Latino youth.
  • USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) will continue to invest in the Ag Econ Scholars program that introduces talented master's degree and Ph.D students to careers in applied agricultural economics through hands-on learning opportunities at USDA in commodity market analysis, agricultural finance and other applied fields of economics.
  • USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), in October, will launch a new Student & Outreach Database to identify the number of students and post-doctoral fellows training at and visiting any of ARS's more than 90 agricultural research facilities.
  • The USDA Science Council will coordinate with NSF to create opportunities for NSF-funded Ph.D. students at USDA research facilities through a new Graduate Research Internships Program.
  • USDA's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service will continue to invest in the AgDiscovery Program, a free summer outreach program to help teenagers explore careers in plant and animal science, wildlife management and agribusiness at an increasing number of participating colleges and universities.
  • USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) will add to USDA's online resources for teachers and students with the launch of a new FSA Kids Educational Site in 2017 to provide educators, children and teens with inspiring agricultural educational resources.

During the event, USDA undersecretary for research, education and economics Catherine Woteki also announced an investment of $382,650 in four universities through NIFA's Women & Minorities in Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics Fields Program (WAMS) from fiscal 2016 funds. WAMS projects help increase the number and diversity of students entering food and agriculture-related STEM disciplines that help feed the world and contribute to the economic viability of rural communities.

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