Jobs outlook bright for students in ag and natural-resource sciences

University Park, Pa. -- With the nationwide unemployment rate hovering above 9 percent, many new and recent college graduates are struggling to find jobs in their chosen fields. But graduates in food, agricultural and environmental sciences are in demand, according to an expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Citing a recently released study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Marcos Fernandez, the college's associate dean for undergraduate education, noted that about 54,400 annual openings will be available for individuals with bachelor's or graduate degrees in food, renewable energy and environmental specialties between 2010 and 2015. However, he pointed out, there will be enough agriculture and natural resources graduates to fill only 54 percent of these open positions.

"The study suggests that only about 29,300 of those jobs will be filled annually by graduates of programs in agricultural sciences, natural resources and veterinary medicine," Fernandez said. "That means employers will have to turn to the estimated 24,200 graduates in allied fields such as biological sciences, engineering, health sciences, business and communications to fill most of the remaining openings."

However, study authors write, "Employers have expressed a preference for graduates from colleges of agriculture and life sciences, forestry and natural resources, and veterinary medicine, who tend to have relatively stronger interests and more extensive work experiences for careers in food, renewable energy, and the environment than those from allied fields of study."

Fernandez was a project consultant for the study, "Employment Opportunities for College Graduates in Food, Renewable Energy, and the Environment 2010-2015." He explained that more than enough graduates will be available in some occupations during the next couple of years, but a shortfall of new graduates in some business and science specialties is predicted in the latter part of the five-year period.

"The study points to a shortage of qualified graduates to work as plant geneticists and plant breeders, climate-change analysts, and food-safety and food-security specialists during the next five years," Fernandez said.

Of the 54,400 projected annual ag-related job openings, 74 percent will be in business and science occupations, 15 percent in agriculture and forestry production, and 11 percent in education, communication and governmental services, according to the study.

Major factors influencing the job market for graduates during the five-year period include overall economic conditions and retirements; consumer preferences for nutritious and safe foods; food, energy and environmental public-policy choices; and global market shifts in population, income, food and energy.

Fernandez contends that education and training in food, agricultural, natural-resource and related sciences are as critical today as they ever have been. "Experts forecast a 50 percent growth in world population to about 9 billion in the next 40 years," he said. "That increase, combined with the predicted improvement in standard of living and diet across developing nations, will require a doubling in food production.

"Graduates in these fields will have an opportunity to help solve challenges related to the food vs. fuel debate, the health of the Chesapeake Bay and other ecosystems, Marcellus Shale gas exploration, biofuels and other renewable energy production, use of technology in farming and food manufacturing, invasive species, sustainability, emerging diseases that affect people, animals and plants, and many other issues."

The diversity of career opportunities and the need for well-prepared graduates with a solid grounding in science has begun to attract more students to the College of Agricultural Sciences, according to Fernandez.

"After a decade of declining enrollments, the college has seen an overall increase of about 30 percent in the number of undergraduates since 2005," he said. "We credit part of that increase to the fact that we're doing a better job of getting the word out about the opportunities in the food, agricultural and natural resource sciences.

"But we also see a growing number of young people who understand that with our missions of teaching, research and extension, we can prepare them to take what they learn here and apply it in real-world situations to help people and to improve their communities and the world around them."

Last Updated November 18, 2010