NORMAL, Ill. — Schools across the Midwest are adapting their agricultural programs to suit the needs of the next generation of farmers and agricultural businesses.

One of those schools planning big changes is Heartland Community College in Normal.

Until now the school’s agricultural classes were designed to be transfer classes for students moving on to a four-year university. Starting in fall 2021, students will also be able to take classes to get an Applied Associate Degree and several ag-related certifications, explained Miranda Buss, the college’s ag programs coordinator.

Not everyone needs a four-year program. Some students need a two-year program or job-related certifications and are ready for employment, said Buss, an agronomist and instructor. Many receive further specialized training from their employers.

Heartland Community College’s board of trustees recently approved seeking $22.4 million in state funding to help build a new agricultural complex that will offer a two-year work-ready program including opportunities for four certificates. The four main areas of focus are ag business, agronomy, precision ag and regenerative ag. All include internships.

The change in focus came after consulting with ag groups, farmers and ag businesses and hearing what kinds of skills today’s students will need.

“We worked backwards,” Buss said of designing the programs.

Ag business classes include management, marketing, accounting, ag economics and small business operation along with computer applications.

Agronomy students will work with field crops and horticulture. They will earn certification for crop protection application, giving them opportunities to work for many farm service companies.

Precision ag students will learn to pair historical data with remote sensing and use other new technologies. Their program includes FAA drone certification, Buss said.

The regenerative agriculture program will include organic farming principles, soil health basics and selling local.

The programs are designed to give students “stackable credentials” which they will need in the quickly changing ag environment, Buss said.

“A” is for adaptability

One of the most important assets future farmers and others wanting to work in agriculture will need is “adaptability,” said Mike Gaul, director of career services at Iowa State University in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

This is apparent in the impact of the global pandemic on students’ current and future plans.

Gaul recalls when he first started getting calls this spring from companies who had to cancel internships because of the COVID-19 threat. Eventually almost every student who lost a planned internship found another, even though some were virtual experiences, he said.

The employers and students showed resiliency and adaptability, Gaul said.

Likewise Gaul has been adaptable in setting up the popular career fair for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which attracts about 2,000 students and 280 companies to the Ames campus. This year, it will be online Oct. 12-13.Employers can post jobs, students can join chat rooms that interest them and can have private chats with recruiters.

“Young people are wired for this stuff,” he said.

Ongoing education needed

The experience of working on the family farm isn’t enough to get a job at most agricultural companies today. Additional technical training and certifications are required, said Karl Barnhart, chief marketing officer of Brandt, a plant nutrition, crop protection and specialty input services provider, headquartered in Springfield, Ill.

Today’s employees need a lot of technical knowledge, he said. Drivers and chemical applicators need to understand chemicals, fertility, seed genetics and more, Barnhart said.

Sometimes that may involve getting an applicators certificate. Other careers within the company, including agronomists, may require four-year degrees.

Barnhart noted Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield will also be expanding its agriculture offerings in 2021.

The school’s soil science programs, simulators for sprayers and combines, as well as certificate training are helping prepare students for changing jobs, Barnhart said. As well as agricultural studies, students can earn their commercial driver’s license and spraying application certification at the college to make them more employable, he said.

Workers today won’t be doing the same job 20 years from now, even if they are sprayer operators all those years, he said. Even nozzles change so rapidly, skills needed change as well, said Barnhart. He notes that the complexity inside a tractor cab today is similar to that inside an airplane’s cockpit.

The trend in agriculture, as in health care and technology, is for “constant learning,” he said.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.