Military Times

Drones, not dirt: Making farm careers cool for vets

Federal officials have spent the last few years developing new resources to help put veterans into agriculture jobs. Now, they're working to make those jobs look cool.

Officials from the Department of Agriculture on Tuesday unveiled new plans to better explain and market a host of industry jobs to recently separated service members, calling it a growth area that fits nicely with the skills and training of those veterans.

"People need to know this is about more than just handling livestock," said Lanon Baccam, deputy undersecretary for agricultural services at USDA. "This is about engineering, drone technology, data analysis and more. Breaking down the walls is key."

Earlier this year, department officials partnered with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on promoting agriculture as a potential career path for troops after they leave the military. Now, the officials are shifting that work to highlight many of the industry's cutting-edge agriculture jobs, through a new web portal and jobs site. 

The goal is both to help veterans find work and to help industry officials find workers.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who spoke to corporate officials and veterans advocates during an unveiling event Tuesday, said that current training programs and job applicants are expected to fill only about half of the industry's open jobs in the next decade.

Meanwhile, department officials have raised concerns about the long-term viability of domestic food production in the country and the significant drop in America's rural population in recent decades. The average age of farmers in America is 58, according to USDA data. There are twice as many farmers in America older than 65 than farmers under the age of 35. 

Vilsack said those challenges point toward encouraging veterans to take an opportunity to serve their country again, in an agriculture career.

"These folks understand duty, responsibility and teamwork," he said. "Anyone who hires them benefits from the training they received."

Mike Michaud , assistant secretary of labor for veterans employment and training, said his agency has worked to help connect veterans to those openings. But chamber officials acknowledged that most veterans’ perception of agriculture jobs involves shovels and dirt.

Industry leaders want to redefine the potential opportunities as careers with flexibility and plenty of cool gadgets. That includes jobs like drone operators, who help collect data on crop growth and spray pesticides for farms.

The new effort will also include collection more stories of veterans in agriculture, to better relate how their skills and experiences translate into the civilian work.

More information on veteran careers in agriculture will be posted on the Chamber’s Hiring Our Heroes web site.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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