Try explaining STEM to students and you probably get blank stares, eye rolls or even yawns. Sure, you can spell out the acronym (science, technology, engineering, math) but that doesn’t make it any more exciting. STEM usually triggers thoughts of a computer programmers, squinting at computer screens, staring at codes all day, or, for the more ambitious, scientists in lab coats discovering the cure for cancer (but who could really imagine themselves smart enough to do that?). Okay, so then you “dumb it down” a bit and move on to discuss agriculture. Now they’re even more disengaged. Unless you live on a farm in Iowa, there’s no way you’d ever pursue a career in agriculture. And there’s quite possibly no other jobs other than operating tractors and plowing fields, right?
Here’s the problem. There’s a negative stigma surrounding STEM careers (being too technical or too brainy) and agriculture (being too rural or unexciting). So how do you get students interested in these fields? First break the news lightly that the glamorous careers they’ve dreamed of probably won’t be in demand in the future (if they aren’t already). Then tell them there’ll be no future (and they’ll be really,really hungry) if STEM and agriculture careers don’t take flight. Or, give them the facts.
According to a report issued this month by the United States Department of Agriculture, nearly 58,000 high-skill agriculture-related jobs are expected to open up between 2015 and 2020. These are no corn-shucking-jobs—these jobs are in fields like renewable natural resources, engineering and environmental industries, to name a few, and are becoming increasingly available in suburban and even urban markets.
What’s the cause of this renaissance? Growth in world population. The United Nations estimates there’ll be nearly 9.6 billion mouths to feed worldwide by the year 2050, according to the report, which means agricultural production will need to more than double than our current rate.
Farmers will still play a critical role in the production chain, but they can’t do it all themselves. And that’s where STEM comes in. We’re now in an era of scientific agriculture, where chemistry, ecology, engineering and other fields play essential roles. As these fields become increasingly intertwined with food and fuel production, agriculture increases its crucial need for STEM. There’ll be a demand in jobs for scientists, engineers and technical experts (who won’t work anywhere near a farm). Engineers will need to improve farm machinery efficiency, scientists will need to find ways to improve plant yields (and find ways to work with a decreasing water supply) and technicians will be needed to collect data of all kinds. And these are only a few.
More job opportunities sounds like a great thing, but not enough workers is just the opposite. The report estimates there are 57,900 high-skilled job openings annually in the food, agriculture, renewable natural resources, and environment fields in the U.S. But according to an employment outlook report released by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, there’s an average of 35,400 new U.S. graduates with a bachelor’s degree or higher in agriculture related fields, leaving 22,500 of the jobs unfilled annually. The report also showed female graduates outnumbered men in agriculture nationwide. And female STEM graduates now outnumber males in fields like plant pathology, conservation biology, entomology, food science and wildlife biology, among others. What does this all mean? Women may be setting themselves up for a career in the power industry of the future. But it also means we need to encourage students to get excited about STEM, because clearly it holds the future.