FEEDING THE EMPLOYEE PIPELINE
MINNESOTA AGRIBUSINESSES HELP PREPARE FUTURE WORKFORCE THROUGH AG HIGH SCHOOL INVOLVEMENT
by Lois Kocon
Match energetic, eager-to-learn teenagers with enthusiastic agribusiness professionals and what do you get? The Agricultural & Food Sciences Academy in St. Paul, Minn. This unique ag-focused charter high school, often referred to as Ag Academy, opened its doors to 45 ninth- and tenth-grade students last fall, with plans to add additional grades and grow student numbers over the next few years.
The college-prep school offers real-life learning situations in an agricultural context. Traditional subject matter is incorporated into individual and group projects that fall under the areas of plants and agronomy, large and small animals, food processing and technology, environmental studies, horticulture, and technological and mechanical systems. These projects often take students out into the agribusiness community of the Twin Cities area (Minneapolis, St. Paul and suburbs.).
The school promises students a nurturing environment that promotes strong basic values and bountiful opportunities for career exploration. As part of Minnesota's public school system, students attend the school free of charge.
CURE FOR LABOR SHORTAGES
"Many wonder why we're offering agriculture studies to urban students," says Brian Ingvalson, principal of the Agricultural & Food Sciences Academy. "The answer is simple: We don't have enough qualified applicants to fill current and future positions in our metropolitan area's agribusiness sector. CHS Cooperatives, Cargill, Land O'Lakes, General Mills and the University of Minnesota are just some of the many organizations here searching for trained professionals. Students literate in agriculture have a bright employment outlook after they complete post-secondary training."
More than 20 percent of Minnesota workers are in ag-related industries. Ingvalson cites ag-industry statistics predicting a job growth rate between five percent and seven percent annually over the next 10 years. He also notes rural student population growth is expected to lag behind, making fewer students available to enter agribusiness fields each year. The result will be a tremendous workforce shortage.
Well aware of their workforce plight, Twin Cities agribusiness leaders have embraced the Ag Academy concept. A large group of supporters from various agribusiness organizations, companies and individuals lent support for the ag high school concept early on and helped the academy become a reality. Members of that group stepped forward to serve on the school's first board of education and will oversee school operations for its first three years. At the end of three years, Minnesota law mandates charter schools be led by a board composed of the school's parents and teachers. The agribusiness board then will move into an advisory capacity.
Current agribusiness board members include Al Anderson, vice president of governmental relations for CHS Cooperatives; Dave Johnson, retired president of Cenex/Land O'Lakes Agronomy Company and past president of the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council; Robert Jones, vice president of student affairs, vice provost of faculty and academic personnel, and professor and plant physiologist at the University of Minnesota; Ron Olson, vice president of grain operations at General Mills; Steve Pooch, competition director for the Minnesota State Fair; and Gary Beil, president and CEO of the Minnesota Crop Improvement Association. Carl Aakre, a learning facilitator at the Ag Academy, completes the board.
It's been learn-as-you-go for the board members since none of them had previous educational board experience, says Olson. While the board's crash course in high school administration requires a hefty time commitment, Olson believes it's a valuable expenditure of his time for several reasons.
"It's important to get students interested in the food/agriculture/technology area, especially from the inner-city market," Olson notes. "And I have an interest in promoting the school's project-based style of learning. This type of education mimics the work world and allows creativity to evolve."
The unusual focus and style of the school also piqued the interest of Colle+McVoy, a Minneapolis marketing communications agency that has been serving agricultural clients for decades. Colle+McVoy provided the Ag Academy with pro bono services to design the school's logo and produce a recruiting brochure and video, plus offered marketing consultation.
"Finding qualified employees has always been a challenge for our ag clients," says Myrna Krueger, vice president and management supervisor for agricultural clients at Colle+McVoy. "Through innovative programming, the Ag Academy exposes students to the ag world early in their educational careers, so they can see all the possibilities in our field. Catching students' interest in high school should lead many bright young people into the ag industry."
MENTORS ADD REAL-WORLD PERSPECTIVE
Along with providing ongoing marketing consultation, Krueger and others at Colle+McVoy have joined other Twin Cities agribusiness personnel as e-mentors to Ag Academy students. The mentorship program provides each student with an ag professional he or she can correspond with via e-mail for greater insights from the field.
Amy Fluegeman, a ninth-grade student at the Ag Academy, appreciates having a ready resource in the agribusiness community. The talented 15-year-old, who serves as president of the Ag Academy student body and leads the school's FFA chapter, is aiming at a career in agriculture communications and has been matched with Brian Kuhl, a communications specialist at CHS Cooperatives - Land O'Lakes.
"It's great to have a mentor who is easily accessible," Fluegeman says. "Whenever we complete a project, we need to include a primary resource for the work. Our mentors really help out with information we need."
Recruiting mentors and other support from the agribusiness community has taken Ingvalson to industry meetings, such as local National Agri-Marketing Association meetings. He uses these speaking and networking opportunities to create awareness for the school, find speakers for the school's Friday lyceums and enlist the ag community's help with recruiting students.
"We've set aggressive student-recruiting goals over the next several years," Ingvalson notes. "Next year we hope to have 165 students and 265 the year after that. Our ultimate goal is 600 students. We look to the agribusiness community for help in spreading the word about our school." Successful recruiting efforts already have netted more than 60 new students for the 2002-2003 school year.
Board members and others have pitched in on recruiting duties and have enlisted others in their organizations to provide students with learning opportunities. Olson recently brought students and General Mills staff together for the Ag Academy's J-term, a week in January when students immersed themselves in one subject area.
During J-term, students and advisors divided into small groups to tackle a variety of topics that took them to Land O'Lakes, the University of Minnesota, local farms and other sites. The group studying food technology spent time at General Mills, talking with research and development staff, and touring an oat-flour materials processing plant.
"Their focus was on the sensory aspect of food production, such as texture, smell, taste and sight," Olson explains. "Our research and development and production staff's professionals helped students understand how sensory elements are evaluated at many points throughout the production process, not just when the final product is sampled."
It's this kind of project-based work that drew Fluegeman to the Ag Academy. During J-term, she spent time at the University of Minnesota, learning how to weld, tear down an engine and rebuild it, and build a wood toolbox. "Learning by working on projects is what pulled me to this school," she notes. "This is a fun way to learn."
Board members have the opportunity to monitor the educational process at each monthly board meeting as students take turns presenting their projects. "It's been nice to see the improvement in the quality of work since the first month of school," Olson notes. "We can see the students are really learning." AM
Lois Kocon is a writer with Colle+McVoy, Minneapolis, Minn., and can be reached at 952/852-7500.