The seed industry, and all of agribusiness, will need to reach beyond the traditional core of agricultural students to meet their talent needs. Learn how you might help to shape the face of tomorrow’s leaders.

I’m from a corn and soybean farm in the middle of Iowa, and we also raised hogs. In high school, I worked on the farm and then attended Iowa State University, studying agronomy. Insert whatever adjectives you want to describe the farm, swap out the state and its respective land grant institution, and that was the story behind most hires for seed companies and agribusinesses.

Just as the number of farms have decreased during the past several decades, so too have the number of “farm kids” from which seed companies can choose as new hires. Agriculture hasn’t always been sexy, and historically, farmers have pushed their kids off the farm, to careers that provide a steady stream of income with less risk and that aren’t as physically grueling. That coupled with urban sprawl and the shrinking land mass from which agriculture relies on make that “traditional ag graduate” a minority, rather than the majority. Don’t fret, the number of students enrolling in agricultural programs has been on the rise.

For instance, student enrollment in Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has witnessed five consecutive years of record enrollment from the fall of 2012 to the fall of 2016. During this period, undergraduate enrollment in the college increased 19 percent, and since 2005, the college has had a 90 percent increase in undergraduate students. With more than 5,300 undergraduate and graduate students, this is the third largest undergraduate student body among agricultural colleges in the nation, according to the university.

Student enrollment in Wageningen University & Research — the No. 1 ranked ag school by QS World University Rankings — has nearly doubled since 2000, increasing from 4,571 in 2002-03 to 9,840 in 2015-16. While actual undergraduate enrollment at Purdue Agriculture hasn’t changed much since 2011, it’s application numbers have increased from 1,269 to 1,756 in 2016.

More and more students are interested in agriculture. But what today’s ag students look like might be very different than what you might expect.

In New York, for instance, Julie Suarez who serves as the associate dean of government and community relations for Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, says that its largest FFA chapter is in the borough of Queens.

“Not what you might expect,” she says. “We hear there’s not much interest in agriculture, but that’s not what we see on the ground. We see incredible entrepreneurship in the student body.”

The challenge, she says, is exposing them early to career opportunities and getting young students engaged. As such, Suarez explains that the college has tremendously increased its efforts to support and build interest in 4-H and FFA within the state.

New York is a big dairy state, she says, and with that comes workforce challenges. As part of their efforts, they developed a junior dairy leaders program. “This gives a lot of kids who don’t have a dairy or livestock background the chance to get onto our school farm during the summer, and through their work, they are finding that they are much more interested in a career in dairy.”

To attract future talent and generate interest in the seed industry, Suarez recommends companies set up steady internship and shadowing programs where students of different ages can engage and learn about the work being done within a company.

“If you are going to attract a young, urban kid, you need to be offering them internships,” she says. “Start early and provide meaningful and impactful internships for students.

“This can be particularly impactful for small- to medium-sized companies. You have to teach people to want you.”

Building Talent

According to Michael Gunderson, Purdue University director for the Center for Food and Agricultural Business, human talent is one of the most important investments a company can make.

“As the industry continues to grow, the number of college graduates with expertise in food, agriculture, natural resources or the environment will not meet the demands of the industry’s talent requirements,” he says. “That means talent acquisition, employee development, retention and succession planning are imperative to business success.”

According to an employment opportunities survey, conducted by Purdue, there will on average be 57,900 job openings in the food and agriculture and renewable natural resources industries; whereas, only 20,000 students a year graduate with bachelor’s degrees in critical STEM fields needed for the future.

And while women are underrepresented in most traditional STEM specialties, women make up more than half of the food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and environmental sciences higher education graduates.

So, how might your company recruit and retain new talent moving into the future?

One strategy that’s particularly effective is mentoring, especially for millennials … but not the traditional kind, according to Talent Management.

“Many organizations are missing the mark when it comes to building mentoring programs that will help them learn and develop,” says Philip Antonelli, Xerox Corp. strategist. “Millennials reject the idea that one person is capable of assisting their growth and development.

“One can hardly blame them — modern business is extremely complicated and consistently evolving. Who can reasonably expect that a single person has all the answers?”

This goes back to what Suarez what saying about creating experiential learning opportunities through internships.

According to Wendy Murphy, coauthor of “Strategic Relationships at Work,” millennials like to learn through collaboration.

“Since they have grown up with information and access to others at their fingertips, they will naturally leverage their networks to discover new ideas and learn from others’ expertise,” she says.

Furthermore, millennials don’t see mentorship as a hierarchy of expertise. Murphy says mentoring, in the eyes of millennials is more democratized.

“They see it as a learning process that occurs across a range of relationships — senior leaders, peers, junior colleagues, clients and customers — rather than just in a one-on-one traditional format.”

Let’s take a look at what a select few seed companies are doing.

Bayer hosts a youth ag summit each year targeting those 14-28 years of age, with the goal of inspiring youth and young scientists for agriculture. A key element of the week-long event is that it serves as a forum for young leaders to discuss solutions for a sustainable agriculture that will help to feed a growing population.

In Germany, the company since 1965, has supported “Jugend forscht,” a research competition for school students that aims to reward special accomplishments and talents in the fields of natural sciences, math and technology. It also helps to support international chemistry and biology olympiads, where students and young adults can prove their scientific skills.

Their goal: to get 1 million children interested in science by 2020. These programs help to shape the Making Science Make Sense campaign. Their recipe for success: allowing employees to take time out to visit schools, armed with hands-on science, such as experiments that schoolchildren can try out themselves and that make them want to understand the science behind them.

At Syngenta, leaders invest in young talent through internship and mentoring programs. All Syngenta internships include: assigned projects, end of project presentations, strong mentoring, job shadowing and cross-functional learning opportunities. To add to that, they also focus on helping students develop life, leadership and presentation skills and encourage them to participate in community outreach through volunteering.

These are the types of examples that Suarez is referring to when talking about creating experiential learning opportunities.

Other companies offer these kinds of opportunities, too, but more are needed to bring in the influx of talent needed to lead the industry forward and meet the global challenges of feeding a growing global population using less land and natural resources, while reducing the overall environmental footprint of agricultur