- Brent Willett, CEcD is Executive Director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor
By now, the figures may be familiar.
- The first: a global population of 9 or 10 billion by 2050, a 22 to 30 percent increase from today’s 7 billion.
- A second: that in order to satisfy the skyrocketing protein and energy demands of this global population, we are going to have to produce more food in the next 35 years than we have as a human race in the last 10,000 combined.
- A third: astonishing global energy challenges are in store as we face a two-fold increase in global energy demand, along with population growth trends as the three most powerful drivers of our energy today – demand, supply, and environment effects – undergo forecasted massive change.
- Fourth: environmental challenges which make the word 'unprecedented' somehow inadequate are in store as we experience and address the effects of global climate change in earnest as up to 5 billion of the 9 billion on earth potentially experience ‘an entirely new climate' by 2050.
As we stare down the monumental challenges facing the global community in the next 35 years, we agree as a global population on very little. From the indispensability of genetically modified crops to address coming nutrition challenges to the role of man in the changing climate, decision makers and everyday people across the planet are participating in an extraordinarily rigorous debate about the future of our world. It's enough to make you toss your head back and laugh -- or cry -- at the tenor and the levity of it all.
However, in the midst of a ferocious debate, an emerging accord is coming into focus: agricultural science and technology lies at the solution’s nexus of each of the three major challenges we face moving forward -- food, energy and environmental sustainability. And that’s where young people come in.
This year, the millennial workforce generation [generally defined as those born between 1980 and 1997] will surpass the Baby Boomer generation as the largest in America at just over 75 million and growing. And they know what they want in a job.
If we join an emerging consensus that the role of agriculture in the coming decades is perhaps the most important in the world with what we are coming to know about the next workforce generation, something awfully promising pops up.
A 2015 study found that when it comes to careers, the top millennial priorities included their growth and development as an employee while -- and this is the key -- making a positive contribution to their local communities and society. Another report which surveyed more than 1,700 currently enrolled university students spanning three generations found that students consider making a positive social impact on the world as a result of their work more important than having children, a prestigious career, being wealthy or even being a community leader.
The same report found that 45 percent of millennials would take a 15 percent pay cut for a job that makes a social or environmental impact. Even taking the latter figure with a grain of salt -- we were all 22 and ready to vow poverty and solve the world’s problems once -- if it’s only half right: would a quarter of your generational colleagues spin off a significant chunk of change for social good? It’s a bit of a new paradigm.
Here’s a new generation whose members are deeply interested in food and where it comes from, who have been heavily influenced by technology since birth and who cares -- albeit a bit choppily -- about the future of environment. Enter the future of agriculture.
As the face of production agriculture continues to change, transformative social and economic opportunities are emerging. Technological innovation has helped spur farm consolidation -- far fewer people can now manage much larger production operations -- and helped create new ag jobs away from the proverbial growing field, a trend which many argue will more than offset the contraction in traditional farm jobs. Farmers are generally getting older; the average U.S. farmer is now 57 years old and over half of U.S. farmland is owned by those over the age of 55. Meantime, agbioscience and agtechnology job trends are skyrocketing. While the profile of those tending the land is expected to trend younger in the coming decades, most of the job growth in the ag sector will be in the office or laboratory.
From major companies like John Deere, DuPont Pioneer and Climate Corporation to successful start-ups like Ames-based AgSolver, high-value jobs in the agtechnology and agbioscience sectors are driving growth in the agriculture job market in exponential fashion relative to the previous generation of ag job creation. Ag technology -- both hardware and software research and development and agbioscience, including plant science and biology -- are not only exploding fields of opportunity for today and tomorrow’s graduates, but they both possess those two characteristics so important to the millennial generation’s perception of a good job.
Cross-pollinate technology and a positive role in addressing global food, energy and environmental challenges and what do you get? One in agriculture. And an ideal job profile for a many a millennial.
Central Iowa is better positioned to leverage this looming trend into high-value ag job creation and young workforce interest in the field than many parts of the world, owing to the convergence of blossoming private sector opportunities in the industry in the region and Iowa State University’s position as a leading ag school globally. It’s already happening; ISU reported job placement rates ranging from 98.6 percent to 100 percent in programs such as ag business, agronomy, ag systems tech and industrial technology. And the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences breaks enrollment records year after year. DMACC, too, is spinning more and more graduates well-prepared for jobs in the ag field into the region's workforce.
We all stand on the precipice of a golden era of agricultural science and technology- one which, fortunately for them, offers fantastic career opportunities for millenials and fortunately for everyone else offers solutions to both global economic and social challenges we are staring down in the ensuing decades.
There will be winners and there will be losers in the chase for the investment, talent and research which simultaneously supports and follows advances in the field, and we are certainly not the only state and region jockeying for position, but I’d rather be us than them any day, thanks in no small part to the promise of the newest workforce generation which is beginning to see agriculture in a new light.