Last year, school districts across the state advertised 73 openings for ag education teachers.
If the four Illinois ag education programs graduate 30 students from their programs, it was a good year, says Dean Dittmar, Facilitating Coordination in Ag Education district five director. Last year, Illinois State University, Southern Illinois University: Carbondale, University of Illinois and Western Illinois University doled out only 12 ag education degrees. In May 2015, the four programs graduated 18 ag education students. Yes, there's a bit of a deficit.
Several factors helped create the situation, Dittmar says. First, the state's pension situation has helped deter would-be teachers. Plus, numerous school districts encouraged senior ag teachers to retire in the wake of the recession and reduced budgets.
Next, it's quite onerous to obtain an Illinois teaching certification. Dittmar explains the four ag education programs award graduates with a bachelor of science in agricultural education and a teaching certificate.
The teaching certificate is the tough part. An out-of-state ag teacher must undergo Illinois' certification process, regardless of years of experience.
For this reason, ISU senior Perry Harlow chose to pursue his ag ed degree in Illinois. He'd previously considered Kansas State University's program, but didn't want to go through the trouble of obtaining certification once he moved back to Illinois.
Dittmar notes Illinois used to grant reciprocity to out-of-state teachers. There's currently a bill in the state legislature to make reciprocity laws easier in Illinois, Dittmar adds.
In the meantime, FCAE directors like Dittmar are making up for the shortage of teachers by encouraging ag professionals to obtain a provisional certificate, or, formally, a career and technical educator license with stipulations. To obtain a provisional certificate, one needs 60 credit hours of college coursework and 2,000 paid hours of ag experience.
"If we could just move a couple months of the school year, one in the fall and one in the spring, I've had a lot of farmers who have told me they'd love to teach ag education during the winter," Dittmar notes.
There's one more reason there are so many job opportunities teaching high school ag. Ag education is an extremely versatile degree.
Dittmar says many ag ed teachers are lost to jobs within the industry each year. For instance, many former ag teachers are now working in agribusiness sales, human resources and the Farm Bureau system.
"It's a versatile degree," Dittmar adds. "It has a little bit of everything, which makes it desirable for recruiters."
Dittmar has one more bit of advice for parents – support the local ag education effort. He's seen these programs be dismantled in school districts. Resurrecting them is extremely difficult.
"One of the worst things is to lose an ag program at a high school because it's so hard to get it back," Dittmar says.