CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Finding a talented ag tech employee may be about as difficult as guessing the first planting date this spring. Both tasks are similar in that being prepared is the key — whether having the planter ready or having the tools ready to find the right candidate.
At a time when it’s difficult to hire in all industries, it can be especially challenging to find stand-out ag tech talent, experts say. Many tech pros have stellar skills but are missing ag literacy skills. And conversely, a lot of ag pros may struggle with digital acumen, says Jen Quinlan, Cargill’s Food & Ag Tech Innovation program lead.
“It’s hard to bridge the gap,” she said at the University of Illinois Ag Research Park’s 2023 Ag Tech Summit March 7 in Champaign.
Starting to develop interest with children may fill some gaps. Kids can often relate to playing with or working on a tablet, said Laura Gerstner, director of the Precision Tech Enterprise program at CNHI. They may be more engaged in the idea of working in agriculture if they learn early what a tablet can do with data to help farmers in a tractor. It’s a way to create more buzz for ag technology, she said.
Amy Funk, the director of the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Food and Agriculture and Nutrition Innovation Center, is also keen on getting youngsters who never thought about a career in agriculture to consider it. Her program introduces inner-city St. Louis kids to new opportunities.
As a track and field athlete, Joyner-Kersee sees the connection between food, nutrition, health and success in her sport. Creating these opportunities for youths is her way of giving back, Funk said.
“Kids here think about being policemen, firefighters, or fishermen but do they think about you?” Funk said to researchers, farmers and tech experts.
“There are 25,000 jobs unfilled in ag tech,” she said, emphasizing the importance of reaching a wider audience to recruit from.
Gerstner also nurtures an interest in such careers while doing her daily tasks. On an Uber ride, she talked to a driver who had never heard of CNHI. When they passed a combine in a field, they talked about it. She told him about the millions and millions of decisions the combine makes. He seemed interested.
“I hope he talked to his friends about tech and solving problems,” she said.
She encourages “getting the buzz” out there to find people as excited about ag tech as the hundreds at the summit.
Quinlan said internships are sometimes overlooked as a recruiting tool today. It’s not the same as back in the day when interns were unpaid laborers who did the things no one else wanted to. Today, student interns are working on real research and development projects at Cargill.
“It’s an immersive experience,” she said.
Such internships can lead to full-time opportunities for students, while students’ skills can help companies move forward, she said.
Just like internships, job descriptions are an employment tool that is poorly used sometimes, Gerstner said. Employers need to think about what they need at the core of the job. When a description includes wording about growing up on a farm being preferred, it may deter some good candidates from applying.
Having a farm background might not always be best. The industry needs diversity of thought, and backgrounds to come up with diverse solutions, she said.