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Human capital an issue for hog industry

Long a challenge for animal agriculture overall, human capital is now a real concern for the U.S. swine industry.

Human capital has long been a challenge for the protein sector overall but has recently become a real concern for the swine industry both within industry and academia, said Maynard Hogberg, professor and chair emeritus with Iowa State University.

Speaking specifically about the development of human capital in the U.S. swine genetics field, Hogberg offered several ideas as to how modifications at the university level might help better prepare the industry’s future workforce.

Hogberg spoke at the joint program of the North American PRRS Symposium/National Swine Improvement Federation Conference in Chicago, Ill., in early December.

Among the points raise by Hogberg: What if graduate students were required to do an internship? What if faculty were funded rather than specific research projects and if industry funded graduate students rather than projects? Would there be benefit to having more business/management incorporated into the curriculum? Should all graduate students be required to have a meaningful teaching/extension experience or should they be were required to participate in a multi-disciplinary research project in addition to their thesis research?

Hogberg noted the pressing issue for both industry and universities is that of the increasing need for scientifically trained personnel. This comes, he said, at a time when there are fewer swine faculty within universities, the academic output of graduate students is decreasing and interest among domestic students in the swine industry is declining. On top of that, he said, universities are competing with industry for talent, and often times industry wins out because of the economics of getting a job over that of obtaining more education.

Hogberg noted that in the past universities benefitted from having combined research, teaching and extension within departments and mission-oriented programs. In addition, faculty had a better understanding of production animal agriculture and how a change in one area might have implications elsewhere. Most students back then, he said, had animal agriculture experience, which, while not a must-have, can be a plus. Public research also was better funded and findings were publically available. As a result, support from producers was much stronger than it is today and students were interested in joining the industry.

Presently, university animal science programs are dealing with an aging farm population and depopulation of farm communities as well as numerous consolidations and mergers within their funding base. Research funding has moved from public funding to that of competitive grants and production-focused efforts have given way to more non-production work. Hogberg said the overall approach to research has moved from that of a holistic, problem-solving approach to that of being more reductionist and less systematic. Likewise, fewer university faculty and students actually have livestock production backgrounds and a basic knowledge of how to apply research from a practical standpoint.

As interest in the hog industry is waning among young people, the job market for agriculture students is increasing. U.S. college graduates in food, agriculture, renewable natural resources and environment programs will find good employment opportunities in the next five years, said Hogberg. In fact, he said, more than 5% growth is expected in these occupations during 2015-2020 for graduates with bachelor’s or higher degrees  Some 57,900 annual openings are forecast, with 46% of those opening being in management and business and 27% being in science and engineering.

Among those attributes that hiring managers have indicated as being the most important in a candidate are problem-solving skills, communication skills, organizational skills and technical skills, said Hogberg.

Those skills specifically needed in animal breeding and genetics graduates, Hogberg said include that of having an understanding of modern science and swine production systems as well as how their research might impact animal well-being, the environment, food safety and consumer acceptance. Critical thinking about and analysis of problems is critical as is the ability to work in a team approach as well as independently.

There is a difference between being good a subject and being good at doing a job, Hogberg noted in closing.

TAGS: Business
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