Penn State

Agricultural fields ripe with job opportunities for college graduates

Josh Cassar, a recent Penn State graduate, had 15 job offers coming out of school. Now he works for Bell and Evans, a major poultry processing company based in Fredericksburg.
Josh Cassar, a recent Penn State graduate, had 15 job offers coming out of school. Now he works for Bell and Evans, a major poultry processing company based in Fredericksburg.

While many of his peers were scrambling to find work after college, Josh Cassar had a different problem on his hands. By the time he graduated in May, he had more than 15 job offers.

“I was fortunate,” he said. “I actually accepted a job offer before I graduated.”

Cassar, 22, now works as a production supervisor for Bell and Evans, a major poultry processor in Fredericksburg. The company, which processes about 1 million birds per week, relies on him to oversee the production line, handle employee rotations and review paperwork for quality control. He manages a team of about 45 employees.

At first glance, it may seem like a lot of responsibility. And it is. But for Cassar, who graduated from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences six months ago, it’s been a smooth transition. He loves chickens. He loves his job.

“It just clicked for me,” he said. “It was something I found interesting, and I was good at.”

Thousands of recent graduates like Cassar have found similar success in landing jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, employment opportunities for graduates in agriculture and related industries are expected to outpace the number of applicants over the next five years.

The gap — about 20,000 more jobs than graduates — runs counter to employment trends in other disciplines. Recent graduates in law, computer science and engineering, for instance, all have higher unemployment rates by comparison, according to a Georgetown University report. The same goes for those in communications, humanities and the social sciences.

“What we’ve seen is growth across the college,” said Jean Lonie, director of student recruitment and activities for the College of Agricultural Sciences. “We have 17 diverse majors, and I think that speaks to why we’re seeing growth is because of the diversity of what it covers.”

The College of Agricultural Sciences is the university’s oldest. Founded in 1855, the school originally started as a land-grant university and remains the state’s only such institution more than a century later.

But today, the college is the fifth smallest of university’s 12 academic colleges. Interest in agriculture has waned over time, as the service and now the so-called gig economy have edged manufacturing and production industries in terms of cultural awareness and, where Lonie is concerned, popularity among incoming high school students.

“I think students don’t understand what’s available to them,” she said. “If we wait until it’s your junior or senior year of high school, we’ve missed the chance to have that conversation.”

Most teenagers have a cellphone. Many have ordered food or clothing through mobile applications.

Fewer are aware of where their dinner or latest fashion comes from.

“A lot of students don’t know how much agriculture actually impacts their everyday lives,” said Stephanie Keller, 21, a food science major. “Obviously it impacts us when we’re eating, but the clothes we wear, the fuel in our vehicles — there are so many different aspects of agriculture that impact us throughout our day, and I think a lot of students are just unaware of that.”

Bridging the gap, Lonie said, starts with education at younger age. The college orchestrates a number of programs that reach students throughout the state. A couple welcome high-schoolers to campus during the summer to learn about the college and the opportunities it offers.

Lonie has seen them bear fruit. The college, with about 3,000 undergraduates, is experiencing record enrollment at the moment, with about a fifth of its population being added this fall.

Yet while interest is growing, it lags behind more popular majors, such as business and health care. Of the approximately 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2012-2013, about a third were either business or health care-related, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Lonie said the terminology can also be a deterrent for younger students. In the past, more of their role models worked in factories or in the service sector. Today, icons such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla’s Elon Musk have spurred interest in entrepreneurship and technology, and terms like “app” or “emoji” are bandied about as second nature. But terms like “meat yield” and “arborist” remain foreign, despite the ready-to-cook chickens found in the grocery store and the maples just outside their windows.

“Plant sciences for example, there are many good, high-paying positions from an arborist to doing all the science behind new, modified breeds,” Lonie said. “You have a spectrum that’s there, but if you asked someone what plant sciences was, you’d get a very simple answer.

“So there’s just not an awareness of what’s behind the scenes and what you can do with it.”

Alison Ferver, 19, credits 4-H for helping her learn about the agriculture industry. By the time she turned 12, she had started her own herd of boer goats. She, along with her two sisters, would breed and care for them.

Ferver, now a sophomore, didn’t grow up on a farm. So she started her own.

“We called it a hobby farm,” she said.

After her freshman year, she interned with poultry research company Cobb-Vantress in its genetics labs, determining the best practices to grow healthy and productive chickens. During her internship, she experienced the crossover between disciplines firsthand.

“There’s a lot more to birds than people think,” she said. “I worked alongside the marketing team while I was there, computer scientists, statisticians, sales, accounting, policyworkers. I got to experience a lot of sides of agriculture besides farming and besides a scientist and besides a vet.”

She even learned the business side. Before coming to Penn State, she had to sell her goats. All 30 of them.

“Sad story,” she said, smiling. “My parents, they have separate jobs, so they can’t take care of them.”

Cassar, whose duties include checking yields and managing shifts, also sees the many disciplines agriculture touches. When he was 11 years old, he attended a country fair and walked through one of the show barns. He was hooked. He started raising chickens in a small backyard plot, joined 4-H and worked as a farmhand at family farm down the road from his house.

Like Ferver, he didn’t grow up on a farm. But getting into the field late — other kids in 4-H had started three years earlier than he had — stoked his interest in learning more.

“If I hadn’t gotten involved in 4-H when I was younger, I don’t know what I would have gone to school for and what I would be doing today,” he said. “Playing catch-up kind of slingshotted me a little further because of it.”

But he realizes not everyone lands in 4-H or decides to raise their own chickens. He’s lucky, he admits, but thinks others can share in his good fortune. If they do, it might just save them time, loans and a lengthy job hunt.

And as for the country, it will add more workers to the production economy, he said, rather than the consumption economy.

“I think one of the biggest strides forward for agriculture is going to be getting education in at a younger age at a grade-school level, versus introducing students to it at college,” he said. “Not only the experiences and opportunities are increased with education, but also understanding the facts and what’s really true about agriculture is another benefit that would come from educating at a younger age.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy