Rob Rhykerd has a lot of reasons to smile these days.
In the spring of 2014, the Illinois State University department of ag chair had 549 reasons to smile. That's how many undergraduate students were enrolled in the ag department – the most in the department's history.
It's quite the turnaround from 2004, when the department only had 203 students. Rhykerd notes this was the low point.
"Our enrollment has dramatically increased," he says. "As the recession hit, agriculture took off. Every institution with an ag program is flourishing right now."
A big part of that is thanks to ag's recent period of prosperity. Another component has to do with parents anxiously weighing the return on investment for college tuition.
"Parents these days really want to make sure their kids have an opportunity for a solid job," Rhykerd says.
Of those nearly 550 students, Rhykerd says the graduates willing to relocate will have no problems finding a job. Placement will be close to 100%, as it has been in year's past.
A combination of the 2008 recession and ag's recent boom has catapulted ag careers to the top of students' radars. While a downturn in grain prices is unfortunate, experts say the overall growth in population has the potential to sustain this explosion in ag careers.
Young high school seniors love the "follow your heart" advice doled out by every self-respecting guidance counselor.
The parents of those seniors are probably more apt to encourage their children to "follow the green." After all, what good is a dream if it doesn't pay the bills? The good news is if that dream has roots in agriculture, it will pay the bills.
Rhykerd and Southern Illinois University: Carbondale's Peter Dirks agree animal science is one of the hottest tickets in town right now. Citing his notes from a speech given by AgCareers.com president Eric Spell, more than 64,000 jobs were posted in animal science in 2014. Dirks, coordinator of recruitment, retention and placement for SIU's College of Ag Sciences, says dairy and swine nutrition are especially hot job markets these days.
Some of the more interesting opportunities in animal science may involve a detour to a different country. Dirks has heard stories of U.S. students signing a three-year contract to work in animal science in India or China. Apparently these offerings are quite lucrative as compensation can run up to $100,000 per year. In most cases, room and board are paid for by the employer.
Rhykerd says animal science at ISU draws a lot of urban students who are on their way to a veterinary medicine degree.
"A lot of these students are from the Chicago area and want to eventually work with small animals," Rhykerd notes. "However, any vet degree is going to require large animal experience also. At ISU, we're able to take them out to the farm and get them hands-on training with large animals."
Spell, who has more than 22 years in agribusiness recruitment, says plant science is still on the hot list. There are plenty of opportunities to work as a traditional agronomist. Dovetailing with that, input sales jobs are still in high demand.
Rhykerd and Dirks both note ag business degrees are desirable. And, of course, students can't go wrong with an ag engineering degree, Spell adds.
And, ag journalists rejoice, because Spell and Rhykerd both note that ag communicators are in high demand these days. With less than 2% of the population farming, and more consumers giving thought to their food, it makes perfect sense.
These days, most parents focus immediately on the bachelor's degrees. While students wait for the job market to gain momentum, spending another two years for a master's degree is fairly common.
However, Spell encourages students to take a second look at two-year degree programs.
"If you're looking at animal science, a two-year program will probably have a quicker return on investment than a four-year program," Spell adds.
Aside from animal science, Spell says diesel mechanics and fleet management are prime for young students fresh out of technical college. And, even though the time spent in the classroom is much less, Spell still encourages two-year students to seek an internship. Doing so will set those graduates apart from the rest of the class, he notes.
Lastly, Spell admits there is one degree he would discourage students from pursuing in the current economy. "You need to be careful with turf grass," he notes.
A degree in turf grass is usually good for two typical career paths – working with sod in new home construction and managing turf at a golf course. New home construction is still slow. And, Spell notes numerous surveys have indicated the younger generation is not as enamored with golf as their baby boomer parents.
Other than that, it appears a career in agriculture will be a solid choice for feeding a family in the future.