READING, Pa. — With farmers turning to advanced software and machinery to improve management, it’s no surprise that ag businesses are hungry for workers with high-tech skills.
But technology has far from eliminated the need for interpersonal skills, like working in a team or explaining an involved problem in simple terms.
If anything, the complexity and specialization of today’s tech may make these so-called soft skills even more important.
Advisers need to give farmers not just the information to make decisions, but also the confidence that they are making good decisions, said Eric Rosenbaum, a crop consultant based in Shillington.
Rosenbaum and other agribusiness employers spoke during the Berks County Agricultural Education Summit on Monday at Reading Area Community College.
Despite the sector’s prominent role in Pennsylvania’s economy, agriculture workers — from crop harvesters to cow milkers to equipment service technicians — are in short supply.
Pennsylvania is expected to have 75,000 ag-related job openings over the next decade, said Ag Secretary Russell Redding.
The state has made several moves to develop the ag workforce, including approving three apprenticeship programs, creating the Commission on Agricultural Education Excellence, and offering a half million dollars in ag and youth grants.
Chris Pierce, president of Heritage Poultry Management Services in Annville, is encouraged by the renewed enthusiasm consumers have for food, though he worries that parents, unaware of the job options in agriculture, may steer their children to other fields.
“Back in my day, kids wore the blue jackets because they didn’t have anything else to do in life. That’s the mentality that people had. ...” Pierce said, citing the iconic FFA outerwear. “Times have changed.”
For the right candidate, the ag sector can provide opportunities for advancement and, in some cases, high pay.
But with so many smart people graduating from college, good grades may not be enough to land a dream job.
Brett Davis, vice president of equipment manufacturer New Holland Agriculture, seeks people with drive and ambition, qualities that will make the company’s future leaders.
“When I interview them, I look at intangibles. That’s it,” he said.
Rosenbaum likes candidates who have leadership experience in clubs or other extracurricular activities. He also wants people who aren’t afraid to be wrong and who are willing to challenge prevailing opinions.
People come to these jobs with all kinds of educational backgrounds.
Kelly Nicodemus, general manager at Anewalt’s Landscape Contracting in Bernville, has one colleague who studied archaeology and another who doesn’t have a college degree.
For her part, Nicodemus said she daily uses skills from her master’s degree in English literature.
She finds that some technical skills, such as pruning or pest management, are easy enough to teach in an academic program.
But even the ablest plant handler needs soft skills to be successful. For example, workers must be able to speak intelligently but on the customer’s level.
“We would like to see professionalism because we are a professional company,” Nicodemus said.
Teamwork is another key part of professionalism.
“We’re not looking for lone cowboys to go out there and just do it on their own,” Pierce said. “We’re looking for that communication.”
Those traits can help farmers just as much as agribusiness people.
A farmer looking to build a chicken barn could avoid conflict by quickly and honestly addressing neighbors’ concerns about flies and odor, Pierce said.
While employers know what they want from workers, they’re finding they also have to adapt.
Unlike previous generations, who gobbled up overtime when it was offered, many people in their 20s and 30s are satisfied working eight hours a day.
“They care about what they do, but they also want their down time,” Pierce said.
More important than hours per week is years of service. Pierce said he aims to keep his employees for decades and help them build a career, not just a job.