The MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology (IAT) graduated its 123rd class.
April 6, 2017
Erin Fritz just graduated and already landed her dream job.
“In order for me to come back home and one day own and operate our family’s farm, I had to have some type of education beyond high school,” Fritz, whose family owns and operates a dairy farm in West Branch. “The dairy management program at MSU was a no-brainer.”
The MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology (IAT) just graduated its 123rd class, and while it is a small program housed in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, interest and enrollment has increased 21% over last year.
Founded in 1894, the IAT delivers innovative, educational programs that develop career-ready graduates through intensive, practical learning and skill enhancement in agricultural, environmental, and applied technologies.
Certificate programs can be completed in 3-4 semesters and are offered on MSU’s campus in East Lansing and in partnership with several Michigan community colleges.
“Our certificate programs are highly respected statewide and nationally, and several have international reputations,” said Randy Showerman, director of IAT. “Classes are taught by faculty and staff in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, so students gain from the research and extension programs at Michigan State University. IAT students are considered – and truly are – Spartans.”
With more than 425 students in certificate programs around the state, Showerman attributed the enrollment rise to a couple of factors.
“We have more relationships with community colleges around the state. IAT has partnered with ten colleges – and we’re in the process of adding more – to offer these certificate programs in students’ communities,” Showerman said. “There is also a great need, in Michigan and around the country, for a skilled workforce in the agriculture industry.”
Kevin Vail, a graduate with a certificate in fruit and vegetable crop management, was happy to have the option to stay close to home. A veteran of the United States Navy, Vail and his wife moved back to their home state of Michigan where he discovered his passion for agriculture and the outdoors.
“I started taking courses at Montcalm Community College with thoughts of transferring to MSU in East Lansing. It was the clear option for a degree in agriculture,” he said. “As I was finishing the courses at Montcalm, they started the program with MSU. It just made a lot of sense for me to stay close to home and get my certificate.”
Ron Hendrick, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said that offering certificate programs for students who are place-based and working with community colleges works for everyone involved.
“As a land-grant university, our work is to get education to Michigan’s residents and we have the expertise in these largely agricultural skill areas to do that,” he said. “Community colleges want programs that will help students get jobs and some students, whether by choice or by circumstance, want or need to stay close to home.”
It’s not just about what students want, though. The state’s food and agriculture industry is in need of a qualified workforce. Michigan’s $100-billion a year food and agriculture industry supports nearly one million jobs in the state. While Michigan’s agriculture production has expanded – workforce development and places to train those students on the latest equipment have not kept pace, Hendrick said.
“Workforce shortages limit the agriculture industry’s growth,” Hendrick said. “Job opportunities in production, processing, distribution and food safety are available in Michigan, our job is to train students, whether here or closer to home, to fill these jobs.”
Showerman said that working closely with industry and communities to develop new programs that train students in available jobs, for instance, food processing, is what the IAT was founded for.
“Our predecessors in IAT did the same thing we’re doing today – talking to industry stakeholders, figuring out what skills students need and offering programs in those areas,” he said. “Today, it’s food processing. We recognize the need for a food processing certificate, so we look at what it will take, academically and facility-wise to make that happen. Processors around the state need a qualified workforce – they need our students.”
He’s right. According to a Michigan Workforce Development Agency Report release in 2014, 1,100 Michigan food processors were asked if they anticipate hiring new employees within the next three years.
· 68% of respondents said they do have plans to hire new employees in the next three years.
· 38% of respondents said they experience challenges finding an available workforce with the necessary skill set when hiring new staff.
· 66% of respondents said that they intend to hire production workers.
Training students for these skilled jobs requires investment in equipment and human resources, Hendrick said.
“When we look at adding a program like food processing, it means we not only add the people who can teach those courses, we have to have the equipment that students will need to understand, otherwise, we’re just doing part of the job,” he said.
For producers like Niki Long, human resources generalist at Peterson Farms Inc., a more qualified workforce means keeping more people working.
“At Peterson Farms, we are excited to hear about the possibility of a food processing certification program at Muskegon Community College in partnership with MSU’s Institute of Agricultural Technology,” Long said. “With a limited applicant pool, we are hopeful that this program could help us keep west Michigan working.”
Showerman said the jobs that students are getting are good-paying jobs in their communities, and can have an economic impact across the state. The average annual salary for a person working in fruit and vegetable and meat processing is just over $42,000. For dairy processing, annual salaries are around $58,000.
Steve Miller, professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, estimated that increasing the number of students trained, and hired can have a significant impact on the state’s economy, directly and indirectly.
Miller estimated that an additional 524 workers entering the workforce after being trained through IAT certificate programs and two-year community college associate’s degrees, in addition to bachelor’s degree programs, can have a $148 million total effect on the state’s economy.
“What’s important about these numbers is where they have an impact in our state – many agricultural operations and food processors – are located in rural areas of Michigan,” Hendrick said. “Adding qualified workers can bring economic viability for some of these communities.”
For students like Fritz, earning a certificate from IAT has allowed her to hit the ground running.
“I’ll go home and, tomorrow, be the assistant herdsman for my family’s dairy and begin working on a succession plan for my family’s farm,” she said.