Study maps future workforce demands of state’s No. 1 economic driver: agriculture industries

  • Published: Monday, Sept. 14, 2020

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Over the next decade, Missouri’s food, agriculture and forestry industries are projected to generate 13,000 job openings each year. Deliberate statewide planning and action will ensure a globally competitive workforce for employers in these industries that are foundational to Missouri’s economy.

A study published today by University of Missouri Extension — Workforce Needs Assessment of Missouri’s Food, Agriculture and Forestry Industries — charts a way forward to address challenges these industries face over the next decade and address their long-term workforce development needs.

“This study lays the groundwork for leaders in the business, government and education sectors to work together on a plan to promote and expand educational opportunities and existing programs to new regions and audiences, and to find ways to invest in rural communities,” said MU Vice Chancellor for Extension and Engagement Marshall Stewart.

The food, agriculture and forestry sectors alone contribute more than $88 billion to the state’s economy — roughly 15% of the total state output. As the global demand for food continues to rise, states like Missouri must be ready to increase their production to stay competitive. Doing so will require multiple strategies, including the development of a next-generation agricultural workforce, said the study’s lead author, Mark White, associate extension professor with MU Extension’s Labor and Workforce Development Program and the Truman School of Public Affairs.

The release of the study coincides with Gov. Mike Parson’s declaration of September as Workforce Development Month in the state of Missouri.

“Agriculture technology and the opportunities it creates are our future,” Parson said. “Time and time again, we hear from agribusinesses that finding skilled labor is a continuous challenge. We must do our part to build the labor force that businesses need to make our state the best place to live and work in America.”

“The future of our food, agriculture and forestry workforce will look much different than it has in the past, and we need to be prepared for those changes,” said Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn. “Missouri agriculture has it all – apprenticeships, technical schools, colleges, universities – to support a robust workforce development strategy. Our agribusinesses and students are counting on us to create a plan that moves our state forward.”

The study used labor market information, an employer survey, and industry and stakeholder focus groups and interviews to assess the needs of Missouri’s food, agriculture and forestry industries. The analysis shows that these industries face a double challenge: how to develop and find workers with experience and skills specific to many jobs within the industry, and how to compete with other industries for workers in demand throughout the rest of the economy.

“A vast majority of jobs in food, agriculture and forestry do not necessarily require a four-year college degree, but many workers do need technical skills and significant experience,” White said. “As a result, training and vocational education are crucial. Many of these jobs are located in rural areas with declining populations, putting them at a further disadvantage.”

Large employers such as major food processing companies can automate to reduce their reliance on workers, a trend accelerating during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, automation requires broadband access, unavailable in many rural communities. Also, smaller firms often cannot afford the capital investment needed to make the transition toward greater automation.

Even for larger companies, automation may reduce the need for frontline workers, but it can also increase their need for a more highly skilled workforce to install, maintain and operate the more sophisticated production lines, White said.

The study will inform work planned for next year on a statewide workforce strategy for Missouri’s food, agriculture and forestry industries. Key first steps — even in an era of tight resources and uncertain impacts from the pandemic — involve identifying partners and foundational needs, such as the following.

Promote awareness of and encourage investment in career and technical education.

“We’ve got to let people know about the jobs that are there, then promote and invest in career exploration and technical education,” White said. “Many of these employers consider youth in 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) as an important source of future workers. Let’s figure out ways to help promote careers and the types of education and training that prepare them for these kinds of careers.”

Organize efforts and strategies by industry sector, by region or statewide to have systemic impact.

“As an example, many food manufacturers across the state need similar kinds of people,” White said. “Likewise, industries or companies — such as wood product manufacturers or farm equipment dealers — could work together with community and technical colleges, for instance, to hammer out training solutions at a regional or state level. By organizing themselves and collaborating, all benefit.”

Promote existing workforce programs and services.

Federal, state and university partners can improve outreach to industry groups and employers to enhance awareness of relevant workforce development, apprenticeship and customized opportunities that already exist, White said. “How can we make sure the food, agriculture and forestry industries know what programs exist and get their share of funding and access to these programs?”

Through community economic development and labor and workforce development, the Missouri Small Business Development Centers and other MU Extension programs— serving all 114 counites and the city of St. Louis — are already poised to help connect companies to these programs, he said.

Invest in rural communities.

In the long term, Missouri, like other states across the nation, must work to strengthen and revive small town and rural economies. Without long-term strategic investment in basics like broadband access, housing, infrastructure and education, people will continue to leave for areas that provide better economic and social opportunities.

“If we don’t strategically address these challenges, we will stay on the same path,” White said. “We need to work purposefully together to bend the curve to ensure Missouri has the workforce it needs to sustain these industries, which are foundational to our state’s economy.”

The study was commissioned by the Missouri Agricultural Foundation and funded by the Missouri Agricultural & Small Business Development Authority.

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