sealPurdue News

December 1998

Opportunities still abound for ag grads

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A triple-threat offense can take part of the credit for placement of 92 percent of Purdue University's May School of Agriculture graduates, according to Allan Goecker, assistant dean and associate director of academic programs in the ag school.

Goecker explained that coordinators in each of the school's departments, a placement service in the school's Office of Academic Programs, and the university's Center for Career Opportunities create a winning team to find employment for ag school grads.

Also key is a strong employment market for food, agricultural and natural resources students.

"Only 10 percent of our students go on to graduate school now because the commercial job market is so good," he said.

Another 2 percent of May graduates were not seeking employment, and 6 percent were job hunting.

"There are still job opportunities available in agriculture," Goecker said. "I think it will be a somewhat tighter market than what we have seen because of the continued consolidation of the agribusiness sector."

Besides the constraints on human resource needs from consolidation, he said, some formerly strong international markets are no longer there. Also, as agriculture evolves, it's harder to differentiate between agriculture and science or agriculture and business. This creates competition from other disciplines.

"The strongest areas for jobs in the agriculture industry are in the post-harvest areas -- food process engineering, food science and marketing," Goecker said. "I don't see that going away as we utilize raw agricultural products.

"Areas dealing with computer information systems also are strong and likely to stay that way with emerging technologies."

Traditional disciplines may be affected by negative economic news in agriculture, according to Goecker, but the nontraditional ones likely will not.

"There are many variables," he said. "It's impossible to predict, but most employers at Career Day said they don't see any major changes coming. They'll stay the course."

Career Day is an annual October event in Purdue's School of Agriculture. It allows potential employers and students an opportunity to interact and exchange information. Nearly 100 employers were represented this year.

John Rodgers, a recruiter with Agra Placements Ltd., Peru, Ind., a 25-year-old business that specializes in connecting ag-related employers with qualified employees, said he expected sales teams to feel the biggest change in the near future. He said businesses are focusing on upgrading their sales force rather than adding to it. Distributors and retail outlets increasingly are expected to handle more of the service needs. He also said equipment dealers are laying people off in anticipation of fewer sales.

The seed industry is not feeling the same crunch, according to Kevin Kaiser, a plant manager for Novartis Seeds Inc. in Paris, Ill.

"The industry as a whole is hiring," he said. "We constantly have openings. The seed industry is not affected as much as the equipment industry."

Ditto for financial service areas, according to Craig Blume, vice president of financial services at Farm Credit Services in Lafayette, an earnings-based credit service.

"We're picking up market share and growing," Blume said. "The industry itself will slow because there will be fewer purchases, but Farm Credit Services won't change its approach."

There are a lot of job opportunities in dairy and swine management, according to Dave Lawrence, another recruiter with Agra Placements, but the feed and animal health areas have minimal opportunities.

Bill Metzger, director of recruitment at United Feeds in Monticello, Ind., said: "It's a challenge to find people with management skills and an interest in swine. Nine or 10 companies are here today looking for the same person."

He added that salaries are competitive, with $28,000 per year an average starting salary in feeds and swine management. A summary compiled by Goecker shows natural resource science and management trailing the pack as starting salaries go, at $23,250. Agricultural and food process engineering led the way at $41,356 per year. In the past five years, starting salaries have climbed $2,000 to $4,000, depending on the discipline.

Salaries sharply increased in the last three or four years in the horticulture and landscape architecture field because of a low supply and high demand for employees, according to Leroy De Vries, co-owner of Henry Mast Greenhouses Inc. in Byron Center, Mich. He estimated starting salaries to be between $23,000 and $31,000, depending on experience. He said few people go into the plant-growing end of the business, and many students go back to a family-owned operation after graduation.

"Henry Mast has been around since about 1950, and we supply places like Meijer, Frank's and Home Depot with plants," De Vries said. "Soon we'll have 15 or 16 acres of greenhouses, and we'd love to have people with an agricultural background. It's a wide-open field for a lot of people."

Jeff Reising, Zionsville branch manager of The Brickman Group, the nation's largest landscape design and horticultural services company, agreed.

"We've grown by 40 percent this year," he said. "We need people in all of our markets."

Reising said the industry is growing as business owners realize the importance of the atmosphere surrounding their business and want to make a good impression on their customers.

Apparently, students are realizing the growth potential in the horticulture industry, as well. Purdue's Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture saw the second-highest growth in enrollment in the School of Agriculture this fall. The Department of Food Science had the highest enrollment growth in the school. The Department of Agricultural Economics still can boast the highest total enrollment, however, with 370. Horticulture and Landscape Architecture was next with 344.

Overall enrollment in the Ag School was down slightly this fall to 2,510 from 2,539. Goecker said this has to do with the graduation of large numbers of natural resources students who began transferring into the Ag School a few years ago when environmental issues first became a major concern.

Source: Allan Goecker, (765) 494-8473; e-mail,

Writer: Andrea McCann, (765) 494-8406; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

* To the Purdue News and Photos Page