Agricultural education sector needs qualified teachers
By Darrin Cline
With a steadily declining direct involvement in agriculture for many Americans, agricultural education is seen by some as an antiquated institution. However, for veterans of the field, the growing number of career fields and skills provided by agricultural education programs is generating interest and a need for educators.
In an uncertain economic climate, the agricultural education sector is starved for quality teachers, especially at the high school level. Ashley Wiebe, a 2012 college graduate in her first year as a teacher in rural Iowa, has seen firsthand the discrepancy between the number of college graduates going into the field and the availability of jobs.
"Really, if you want a job in ag education right now, there are jobs available. The market right now is big," Wiebe said. "I think in Minnesota alone last year there were quite a few schools that couldn't fill openings simply due to a lack of teachers."
Wiebe, who teaches classes on ag leadership, soils, animal science, metals and woodshop for students from sixth grade on up, also advises the high school FFA program. This diversity is something that appeals to the young teacher, who began her college career as an animal science major before switching to ag education.
"I can teach, coach judging teams and have that classroom connection. I could teach the kids something and still have that direct connection with the industry as well. I like the fact that I can blend the teaching, the human connections and the industry relations," Wiebe said.
Kansas State Professor Shannon Washburn, Ph.D., helps students learn and locate agricultural teaching positions across the state. He has seen a high level of job openings in the field as well and expects the trend to continue.
"We have demand for more graduates. We have pretty consistently, for the last five to ten years, had anywhere from 20 to 30 openings each year...We expect that trend to continue for the foreseeable future," Washburn said, who also points out that Kansas has two new ag programs beginning this year.
Youth programs such as 4-H and FFA are also playing a role in drawing students to the ag realm. A dedication to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics programs and modern technology has expanded the role of agriculture beyond the field and farm.
Dale Gruis, Ag Ed consultant for the Iowa FFA Association, has seen similar discussions taking place in FFA circles. At the 2012 National FFA Convention, discussions took place about the pending situations in ag education, with so many qualified candidates finding careers outside of the classroom.
As many in the ag education realm at the collegiate level have seen, going to school for the degree does not necessarily correlate to a career in the field.
"Unfortunately, it happens a lot where people get their ag ed degree then decide to go into something else, and maybe don't want to teach because the money looks better in other industries," Wiebe said.
This discrepancy in compensation has lured many candidates away from the classroom. For National Association of Agricultural Educators Executive Director Jay Jackman, the pull of qualified teachers away from education is one of the biggest impacts on a potential teacher shortage.
"We know that we graduate and certify enough students from our universities...to meet the demands, but so many of those students who are ag ed majors go to work in other areas. The ag industry loves to hire ag ed majors," Jackman said.
According to Jackman, the youth and high school agriculture education programs are increasing at schools across the country. Jackman points to the diversity of skills attained in the classroom and change of ag curriculum over the past few decades.
"We are now very much into agriscience and agribusiness; years ago it was simply production, but today we are specialized, very science-oriented, very business-oriented. It takes a very high-quality individual to meet the demands of ag education today," Jackman said.
Everything from food science to ag mechanics and marketing to animal science are being focused on in today's ag classrooms. For Jackman, this has brought an even greater focus to math and science concepts, but they are being presented in an agricultural context.
While there may be competing viewpoints on the state of ag education and whether or not a teacher shortage is imminent, most industry professionals believe the interest among youth in learning about agriculture will provide a positive future.
"One of the things that we know about the current generation of teenagers and early 20s is that this a generation that wants to make an impact. They want to see that the work they do matters to someone," Washburn said. "We are focusing on making a difference, and capitalizing on those altruistic interests of young people is something that we are working on."