Workforce development must focus on ag-related careers
The future preparedness of Wisconsin's agricultural workforce was one topic heard by members of the Wisconsin Agribusiness Council at their annual meeting in Oshkosh last week.
Danica Nilsestuen, director of field operations for the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin, works in a six-county region to figure out what the needs of businesses are in that region.
There are 10 other Workforce Development Boards in the state, with their own regional limits. Nilsestuen said that all of the boards work with building a workforce in manufacturing and health care, but for many of them, agriculture is a new area.
Not all of them have made agriculture a focus of their work. All of the boards function differently and independently, she explained.
"Manufacturing and nursing are pretty universal. But agriculture isn't talked about a lot in my world."
Her region is working to build a team that will address the needs of agribusiness and they are still trying to assess what the needs are.
She emphasized that these Workforce Development Boards are not part of the state Department of Workforce Development but are funded through federal grants. "Every county in every state has one. They are like Congressional districts. They provide a lot of resources for employers."
One federal grant helped her region train 250 workers through the Wisconsin Agribusiness Academy.
They also held a meat processors boot camp and orientation programs for various ag-related careers.
These Workforce Development Boards are overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor but are also monitored by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.
Nilsestuen said she has been working with Dane County Executive Joe Parisi who wants to make an effort to push for ag careers as well as health care and customer service.
Meetings have pinpointed the outlook for ag-related careers, skills gaps and worker needs. In some cases there are high-skill jobs and no people to fill them, she said.
Nilsestuen said that business owners who have hired younger workers complain frequently that these employees have poor communication skills, call in sick a lot and don't show up on time.
In many cases she has found that young people are not interested in manufacturing, ag-related or construction jobs.
The Workforce Development Board is putting student programs in place for middle school and high school students who aren't necessarily college-bound and for school counselors to educate them about the careers that are available in agriculture.
Those efforts dovetail perfectly with one of the top goals of the Wisconsin Agribusiness Council, which spends a great deal of its annual budget educating state students about the business of agriculture and also about the careers that are related to agriculture.
Nilsestuen's board is also working with the Agriculture Education Council and with school districts that continue to make cuts in agriculture programs. "We're trying to tell them that they might want to reconsider making those cuts since we are going to have jobs in those areas of expertise."
One of the problems her board finds in dealing with ag-related jobs is that statistics can be deceiving. Federal codes put only jobs relating to livestock and natural resources under the "agriculture" classification.
That means there are about 14,338 jobs in the state in "agriculture" but with all the sub-sets of employment there are probably more like 210,000 or more jobs in Wisconsin's agricultural sector.
"We are finding problems in what is defined as agriculture."
One of the reasons Nilsestuen was at the WAC meeting was to make contacts with agribusiness, talk to those in that industry and get as much feedback as she can. "Where are your gaps? What are your needs? Those are the things I need to hear."
In the next 15 years Wisconsin is looking at thousands of ag-related jobs that won't be filled because the workers aren't being trained for them.
George Klaetsch, who lobbies with state lawmakers on behalf of WAC, told Nilsestuen that all 11 of the state's boards should be focused on agribusiness.
"Agribusiness is everywhere. If the perception is that agriculture is dead, we strongly recommend that they come and talk to us. They should all be focused on agriculture."
Nilsestuen agreed. "Agriculture shouldn't have to explain itself. It's not just cows and corn."
When she talks to employers in many kinds of business, Nilsestuen said she hears that "they want the farm kids."
Agriculture sets a standard for hard work, responsibility and work ethic, she said. "The problem is that there aren't as many of them."
Because she is often asked about her last name, Nilsestuen said the late state Agriculture Secretary was her father-in-law. She is married to his oldest son.