MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology graduates 124th class

The MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology graduated its 124th class of 175 students on March 25.

IAT student with a drone.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Sean McGorisk just graduated with his certificate in golf course turfgrass management from Michigan State University (MSU), and now he’s headed to Iowa and the next step in his career.

“It was an easy decision to come to school at MSU,” McGorisk, who has already lined up a job as assistant superintendent of a Des Moines country club, said. “Everyone I’ve worked for in the industry said they valued this institution and the education they received here.”

In the long-term, McGorisk hopes to become superintendent, and eventually general manager, of a country club, and credits his MSU education as a crucial stepping stone to achieving his dream.

“I always knew I wanted to go into the golf industry,” McGorisk said. “MSU gave me the tools and management skills, as well as the scientific background, to excel in it.”

The MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology (IAT) graduated its 124th class of 175 students on March 25. The IAT is the third largest unit in the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, with interest and enrollment increasing 11 percent over the last academic year and 32 percent in the last three years.

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 three to four semesters. They 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 474 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.”

IAT programs afford students opportunities to work with cutting-edge technologies, equipping them to thrive in changing industry landscapes.

For the last two years, IAT has collaborated with faculty at Northwestern Michigan College to provide students with training in the use of unmanned aircraft systems, an emerging technology in both agriculture and turfgrass management.

“Drones are set to make a significant impact in our industry,” McGorisk said. “Being able to work on them at this early stage gave me valuable knowledge I wouldn’t have been able to get somewhere else.”

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 percent of respondents said they do have plans to hire new employees in the next three years.

  • 38 percent of respondents said they experience challenges finding an available workforce with the necessary skill set when hiring new staff.
  • 66 percent 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.

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 McGorisk, earning a certificate from IAT has allowed him to hit the ground running.

“Everything you do in IAT is geared toward the field you’re going into,” McGorisk said. “So much of it is hands-on, and all the programs have internship opportunities that really help prepare you for your career. It’s been a great experience.”

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