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Agricultural employers weigh in on ‘soft skills’

Issue Date: July 7, 2021
By Ching Lee

Students embarking on a career in agriculture may look to bolster their training and knowledge in machinery and mechanics, crop production, animal science or other farm-related disciplines, but agricultural employers say they increasingly seek candidates who possess so-called soft skills that relate to personal development, character traits and other nontechnical abilities.

In a recent survey conducted by California State University, Fresno, agricultural employers listed work ethic most frequently as an important skill they want to see in employees. Other attributes in the top 10 were: communication, dependability, task oriented, life-long learner, agriculture industry knowledge, time management, teamwork, written communication and ambition.

The purpose of the survey, conducted from Dec. 15, 2020 through March 15, was to identify skills that agricultural employers value to help develop the Agricultural Career Readiness Skills Certificate Pathway for the 21st Century, or ACRS21, an online program that allows agricultural students to earn a certificate for completing experiential learning activities that support soft skills and career readiness development, according to Sherri Freeman, project manager of ACRS21 at Fresno State. The beauty of the program, she said, is that the requirements are built into normal FFA activities such as public speaking, leadership involvement, job shadowing and supervised agriculture projects.

"Our next step is to take that information (from the survey), look at what we've already developed, and then include additional soft skills into the teaching materials from this point forward," Freeman said.

The survey recorded responses from 117 agricultural companies, mostly from California, representing sectors including agricultural business, plant and soil science, animal science, agricultural science, agricultural mechanics, forestry and natural resources, and ornamental horticulture.

The companies ranked which skills they thought were most needed for applicants with a high school diploma, a two-year degree from a community college and a four-year degree from a university.

Of the top 10 skills agricultural employers listed as most important, nine of them are considered soft skills, Freeman noted; agriculture industry knowledge represented the only technical skill that fell in the top 10 list.

The top three skills employers said they want to see in applicants with a high school diploma were work ethic, dependability and time management. For candidates with a two-year college degree, the top three skills were being task-oriented, work ethic and communication. The top three skills listed for graduates with four-year college degrees were communication, agriculture industry knowledge and work ethic. Employers included work ethic in the top three skills that they seek for all three education levels.

The research found that upper-level positions need employees with additional agriculture industry knowledge and leadership skills, while applicants for lower-level positions that require a high school diploma need dependability, life-long learning, positive attitude, time management and work ethic skills. For applicants with community-college degrees, skills that ranked the highest include being task-oriented and written communication. Skills that were more evenly required across all educational levels include ambition, critical thinking, teamwork and computer technology.

Employers also identified top 10 skills they believe job applicants lack that can negatively impact their employability. Those skills include work ethic, ambition, communication, dependability, agriculture skills knowledge, time management, positive attitude, oral communication, critical thinking and written communication.

In response to how they would react to a certificate that validates skills related to their business listed on a job application, nearly 47% of employers said they would give the applicant an advantage; more than 22% said they would move the applicant into the interview process; and nearly 17% said they would allow the applicant to move past the initial screening process.

Judy Culbertson, executive director of the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom, who serves on the advisory committee for the program, said results of the survey "definitely confirmed the importance of soft skills in candidates applying with ag employers."

"Many ag jobs are more technical in nature; however, the importance of communication between employee and employer is key to the success of a successful relationship," she said.

Freeman said she was not surprised by the survey results, which align with prior studies on career readiness indicating there may be a skills gap between what employers seek and what educational programs provide. With changes in the workforce, what people do for a living and impacts of technology, she said she thinks soft skills such as communication have got "to be on the forefront."

"I truly believe that in the 21st century that our job skills are shifting and part of it is because a smaller and smaller percentage of our population is actually engaged in production-type activity," Freeman added.

In a promotional video for ACRS21, Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of Fresno County Farm Bureau, said he thinks universities such as Fresno State already do a great job training students on the technical side, but that leadership qualities and skills that allow employees to communicate effectively, answer phones and convey messages of an organization are "being lost today."

Charles Parker, agricultural education program manager and state FFA advisor at the California Department of Education, said even though the survey results "reinforced what we knew," he would like agricultural educators to "go deeper" into what skills agricultural employers want beyond soft skills, which he said "ought to be a given" for students graduating from an agricultural education program in California.

"We can't keep saying we need to teach them how to be better speakers, how to be better people," he said. "We've got to get beyond that."

He called the ACRS21 certificate program "a great start" and "the first step in moving forward," but said educators need to "continue the dialogue" with agricultural companies and employers to develop a program that benefits agricultural students—and that incorporates both soft and technical skills.

Freeman said ACRS21 recently completed a successful pilot and is now being rolled out to nearly 100,000 FFA members across the state, with plans to launch the program at the high school level nationwide. Another pilot for community colleges will begin next spring, she said. The "vision," she added, is for the state's four-year agricultural universities to adopt the model, which will be the program's focus in its third year.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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