OMAHA (DTN) -- Major agricultural businesses are looking at a more diverse U.S. population and trying to find ways to make agriculture become more diverse as well.
Keeping up with U.S. population trends was one of the drivers behind a summit last week in Washington, bringing together businesses and colleges with the help of the Department of Agriculture to develop the next generation of college-educated workers in the ag sector.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the daylong summit was the brainchild of Mike D'Ambrose, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Archer Daniels Midland Co., who approached Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Krysta Hardin several months ago expressing concern about whether agribusinesses were doing enough to prepare for a more diverse country.
"We talked about the possibility of getting together agribusiness leaders, university and college academic leaders, USDA officials and commodity representatives to try to have an in-depth conversation about how we can do a better job attracting, retaining and encouraging a more diverse workforce throughout agriculture," Vilsack said in an interview.
The secretary praised D'Ambrose and ADM for taking the lead in putting together the summit. Vilsack said USDA has been working on such initiatives within the department, but the secretary said it was good to see a leading agribusiness recognize the issue and encourage the industry to think more broadly.
"It was an acknowledgement of the need to embrace diversity and a recognition in doing so, not only would we have the people to fill the jobs to fill today and in the future, but we would have a more creative and more successful and more innovative workforce that would allow businesses to continue to be profitable and provide services to farmers, ranchers and producers, and continue to support a strong agricultural economy and jobs associated with it," Vilsack said.
The secretary added that farm leaders and agribusinesses are often the ones making decisions, suggesting people to serve on local, state and federal boards and commissions. "We're constantly looking for creative ways to get the message out," Vilsack said.
Roughly 35 companies and educational institutions participated in the summit. Among the businesses represented were some of the largest in agriculture. Besides ADM, the list of companies included Bunge, Cargill, Caterpillar, CHS, DuPont, John Deere, Monsanto, Coca-Cola and Tyson Foods. Several universities and familiar youth ag groups such as FFA were also involved.
"As I look at the situation, companies in the whole ag-business space, we're all looking to ensure we have the competitive advantage that comes with diversity," D'Ambrose said. "My thought was, 'Isn't this an area where we could do something different.' The secretary suggested creating the idea of the summit."
USDA will continue its own minority-related internship and scholarship programs. Vilsack said the summit also afforded the opportunity to develop different relationships for the companies and others to cast a wider net for talent with some historically minority colleges, for instance.
Companies at the summit shared various practices for recruiting and training more minority job candidates and promoting agricultural jobs to minority students.
Participants from the summit agreed to develop teams to look into topics such as how to increase awareness about careers in agriculture and help colleges highlight career paths for students to get ready for jobs in agriculture.
"I'm very excited about the future opportunities that can come from the collaboration," D'Ambrose said.
Vilsack said the summit also built on some work done at Purdue University last year that identified more than 50,000 job opportunities in agriculture. While the careers were identified, Purdue's work showed colleges were only training enough students to meet about 60% of that expected job demand.
"So there is a significant need and opportunity here in the short term that will grow in the long term," Vilsack said.
Luis Maldonado, chief advocacy officer for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, credited both USDA and ADM for putting together the summit and acknowledging the challenges with minority recruitment in agriculture.
"Not that I've been around forever, but this is the first time and only time I know of that a significant agency like the Department of Agriculture does an event with its business partners to focus on the issue of minority participation, education, training within their labor force," Maldonado said. "That is very encouraging."
Maldonado added it was repeated several times that the summit was the beginning of a process for the various stakeholders to make better inroads into diversifying the workforce.
Maldonado noted it was the first time in his tenure that a federal agency had begun publicly making such efforts. HACU represents more than 400 universities and colleges that include more than 25% Hispanic enrollment. Maldonado said Hispanic colleges often struggle to get promotion for agricultural academics because very few HACU colleges are part of the land-grant system.
Maldonado said the federal government isn't doing nearly enough to balance the Hispanic job force with the population demographics. About 7.1% of USDA's workforce is considered Hispanic, compared to the overall population running closer to 18%. Still, Maldonado credited USDA for partnering with Hispanic colleges on an internship program.
"They do a decent job of attracting Hispanics to the Department of Agriculture," Maldonado said. "Every year they keep improving their rate, but overall Hispanics are severely underrepresented in the federal government."
Others involved in the summit included leaders from key historic black colleges Tuskegee University and Alcorn State University, as well as the Thurgood Marshall College Fund.
Last month, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote USDA expressing some frustration over issues involving civil rights at different agencies. Most of those complaints are tied up in litigation. Vilsack said this diversity initiative is not tied to those problems, but the department has sought to address various issues surrounding diversity since the beginning of the Obama administration. Vilsack said he also thinks members of Congress aren't aware of all the steps USDA has taken.
"With due respect to our good friends in Congress, they are several years behind in terms of what is happening and what has happened at USDA," Vilsack said. "There has been profound transformation at our department. We have significantly increased our diversity among our rank-and-file and we have one of the most diverse senior executive groups in the federal government."
Efforts from leaders such as Deputy Secretary Krysta Hardin to push for more diverse applicants for USDA-appointed boards and committees is starting to pay off as well, Vilsack said. The increase isn't near the pace officials would like to see, but there have been improvements, he said. Growth is slow because many such boards require farmers and others to work through local and state systems before being eligible for nomination on the federal level.
"At the grassroots, or entry level, we are seeing far more interest, and over time those folks will sort of work through the process," he said. "In the meantime, we are seeing a broader array of candidates being proposed."
In another path regarding diversity, D'Ambrose said a few urban high schools have been doing more in recent years to show kids the opportunities in agriculture. He was especially excited about such efforts in Chicago.
"The ag high school here in Chicago is a phenomenal place," he said. "It's a really great statement for our industry and doing great work.
Follow-up work out of the summit will create developing a methodology to share best practices openly so that rather than competing with each other, the agribusinesses can build a stronger overall ag sector with qualified people filling those jobs.
"We believe strongly that either we all win together or we don't win at all," D'Ambrose said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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