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A different kind of tech challenge

This week I'm at Commodity Classic, a giant meeting where commodity producers get together to catch up on hot policy topics and see the latest technology for their farm. The meeting is filled with seminars, a giant trade show and plenty to see. And ahead of the meeting major companies hold events for the many members of the media on hand.

Bayer CropScience held its 8th annual Ag Issues Forum where we got plenty of great information about a number of topics, and the chance to sit down with key management of the company. One talk I had was with Inci Dannenberg, vice president, commercial operations. And she wanted to talk about recruiting.

Turns out this high-tech world of agriculture, where you bet the farm every year, can't seem to find enough folks to fill the available positions out there for support, sales and research and development. "There are 47,000 job openings available and just 16,000 candidates to fill them," she says. "There is a shortage."

Her concern is that for the United States to maintain its innovative edge we need people who choose to go into science, technology, engineering and math programs. Grouped together that spells STEM and it's that "STEM problem" that's top of mind.

One area of concern is the lack of students selecting science as they move toward college. "We want to understand where students lose interest, where they get turned off by science, and what can motivate them," she says.

Bayer does its share of "in the classroom" programs with younger children to engage them in science, but it's a long-term challenge. And the key is showing that the science of agriculture is important and empowering too.

Dannenberg, who didn't come from a farm, got into ag after working in market research with some ag clients. "I liked the work and I found the people passionate about what they do," she recalls. To her agriculture is a noble industry with a critical cause - to feed the world. On that I'm sure you, dear reader, would agree.

But what about this lack of STEM candidates for jobs? It's a challenge. Yet check the ag-focused classrooms in colleges and some of the problem may be going away. The land grant schools are filling up with folks who want to be part of agriculture. However, there's the need for a core of students who can go on to do the molecular biology, the hard chemistry and the critical engineering of research - it's a long-term problem.

Loss of experience?

Dannenberg also talks about the gap in available experienced candidates. Ag downturns in the past took "out" some people who left the industry to find other work. The result is a gap in 10 to 15-year experienced candidates in marketing and management as well. "We're reaching out to MBA grads who haven't found a job and working to show them the value of considering Bayer as an employer," she says.

That's not just a Bayer challenge - ag companies don't always come up on the radar of a corporate-focused MBA grad who may be having trouble finding a job. Dannenberg says in Bayer's case, candidates can choose ag, or healthcare or other disciplines the company covers. "We're just not being considered, we have to tell our story," she notes.

And why should a farmer care if Bayer can't get the right candidates for a marketing job? It goes deeper than that for sure. But as you face the challenges of crop diseases, resistant weeds and more, don't you want the smart people looking for solutions? The challenge is there and it's going to take those STEM students to step up and help meet it with research; and those MBAs to develop strategies that get products to market efficiently.

Farmers are often in a unique position serving on school boards. STEM programs are a key part of education, keeping an eye on whether students are turning toward, or away, from those programs may be a top priority for you in the future.

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