Agriculture and forestry grads are in high demand
A combination of high workforce demand and low supply of college grads in a thriving economic sector translates into excellent internship and job prospects for students majoring in many agriculture and forestry disciplines — both nationally and here in South Carolina.
A national study forecasts strong employment opportunities for graduates with expertise in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources or the environment over the next five years, and recruiters in Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences are working hard to meet industry demands.
“In our plant- and food-related majors, enrollment is not meeting the industry demands,” said Katie Black, director of student recruitment and double Tiger with a bachelor’s and master’s in agricultural education. “It’s a national problem, but we’re not even able to fill South Carolina’s needs, and this is our state’s number one industry.”
That’s no exaggeration. A 2015 study supported in part by Clemson’s Public Service Activities division showed that the highly diverse cluster of industries that make up agribusiness — including agriculture and forestry — accounts for roughly $41.7 billion in economic impact and more than 212,000 jobs in South Carolina.
Nationwide, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report says the gap between current job openings and the number of graduates is widening, with an anticipated shortage of more than 22,500 workers in the food, agriculture, natural resources and environmental fields.
That’s one reason Sarah Nix had a job lined up well before she graduated in 2014 with a degree in agricultural education, with an emphasis in leadership. As international marketing manager for the Florida Department of Citrus, she coordinates with agencies around the globe to promote sale of Florida-grown products — a job that provides a wealth of business experience and opportunities to travel to Europe, Asia, Canada and across the U.S.
Nix was no stranger to agriculture, having grown up on a peach farm in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. But she arrived at Clemson intending to major in packaging science, “which I still think is an awesome major. Unfortunately chemistry and I didn’t get along.” With help from faculty, staff and other students in the college, she found the right niche in ag education, “because I knew the job opportunities with this degree are endless.”
A resurgence of interest in environmental sustainability, locally sourced foods and food safety has made agriculture “cool” again, according to Paula Beecher, director of the college’s William B. Bookhart Student Services Center, “but even so, we have a hard time getting enough students to meet industry demands.”
Beecher works regularly with industry recruiters who come to campus looking for interns or new hires — only to leave empty-handed.
“Companies often come to campus, and we can’t fill an interview schedule,” she said. “The major forest-product companies come hoping to hire two or three forestry graduates, and they’re lucky to find one. I should never have a forestry graduate tell me they couldn’t find a job.”
McCauley Frierson, now an agricultural education graduate student, from Traveler’s Rest, South Carolina, gained real-world sales and marketing experience through his undergraduate internship with the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, helping get South Carolina-grown produce into markets nationwide.
“I provided support in three major areas, the South Carolina Peach Council, the South Carolina Watermelon Association and the South Carolina Watermelon Board, working with retailers across the nation as well as Canada,” he said. “In addition to getting product on the shelves, the department strives to create a brand that can be easily recognized by consumers through the Certified South Carolina Grown program.”
Initially a horticulture major, Frierson switched to agribusiness with a horticulture minor. He graduated in May. “This degree has great flexibility and can be taken in many directions,” he said.
He was also one of 10 students chosen to participate in the Southeastern Product Council’s Southern Exposure through the STARS (Southeast Top Agricultural Recruits Scholarship) program, which gave him the opportunity to network with agribusiness executives from all over the Southeast.
“Agriculture is a tight-knit industry, and networking is pivotal,” he said.
Nix is also a strong advocate of internships, noting that hers helped pave the way for her current job with Florida Citrus. “An internship is like an extended interview, and when a potential employer can see your work ethic firsthand during an internship, it is a no-brainer when you send a résumé to them before graduation seeking employment,” she said.
Beecher also said that because of the shortage of students, many scholarships funded by industry or private donors often go un-awarded. “So we’ve got scholarships, internships and good jobs. We just need more students.”
Don’t have a farming background? No problem. Only 10 percent of current students have had a traditional farm upbringing, and only 10 percent leave with that career in mind, Black says.
Take Alexa McCullen, for example. The Gastonia, North Carolina, native came to Clemson as a business major in need of a minor. With minimal experience as a backyard flower gardener and with a mother “who kills every plant she owns,” McCullen had no horticulture background but thought it sounded like fun. She soon learned it could also be a career — and one with a lot of pathways. So she switched majors.
During an internship with the Carolina Panthers’ landscape crew, she helped with upkeep of public areas around the downtown stadium, including a jogging trail, and had to learn to mow grass and use a weed-eater.
A research project connected her with alumnus Dean Norton, director of gardens at Mount Vernon, who hired her as an e-intern to assist with a project to understand how the gardens would have looked to George Washington himself. That led to a summer internship at Mount Vernon to continue the research that will lead to an eventual restoration.
She interned at the nearby Liberty High School, teaching turfgrass as part of an agricultural education program. And now she has graduated and is working as an Extension agent with the University of Maryland.
Looking for a white-collar, high-paying job with management potential? No problem. Many of the ag and forestry jobs going unfilled are in business areas such as procurement, e-commerce, financial analysis, marketing, shipping and logistics.
“There are a wide variety of job opportunities,” McCullen said. In advising students thinking about an ag or forestry major, she said “Be open to it. There are a lot of stereotypes, but there are many viable career options that go along with these majors.”
Interested in biology and chemistry? Again, not a problem. Many programs in the college are heavily science focused and seeking students with a strong interest and background in biology and chemistry.
“There are tremendous opportunities in the plant, food and animal sciences sectors such as precision agriculture, water resource management and plant genetics, but these students will need to have a strong science and technical background,” Black said.
McCullen agrees. “I was salutatorian in high school, and people assumed I would major in science or engineering. Those are great majors, but we also need smart people in agriculture.”
For more information about majors in the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences and job prospects, check out Clemson’s degrees website, schedule a visit or contact the Bookhart Student Services Center at email@example.com.