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For youth to become involved in agriculture, the agri-food sector needs to play a major role, using three steps (exposure, engagement, and influence) to encourage youth to select a career in agriculture and food.
1. Increase exposure
Given the limited (and sometimes inaccurate) perspectives that young people have of agri-food careers, the first step must be to increase their exposure to a wide variety of agriculture careers.
One of the ways this is achieved is through activities like Career Competitions. A pilot of this was facilitated by AgScape (Ag in the Classroom — Ontario) in September 2016, in collaboration with AgCareers.com and Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show (see photo at left). I was thrilled to see this program come to life here in Canada since it is modeled on the New Zealand Young Farmers’ Get Ahead Day, which I saw during my studies.
Ag businesses can easily participate by partnering with organizations like AgScape, local fairs and ag education committees to run a career station at this type of activity. It is incredibly valuable for students to see a real life example of people working in exciting ag careers, and it is a wonderful avenue for agribusiness to showcase some of the lesser-known occupations within their organizations.
2. Provide engagement opportunities
Once students have had their minds opened to the diversity of careers in agriculture and food, it is important to provide them with the opportunity to try that career out. Hands on learning experiences are among the best ways for youth to assess whether they may be interested in a career in agriculture.
The ag sector needs to do a much better job of offering hands-on opportunities for high school students. Experiential learning can take the form of job shadows, co-op terms, or summer employment. These are low-risk ways to give students a chance to try out a career.
Farms and agribusinesses should connect with local high schools and let them know that they are happy to welcome youth though their doors. Imagine the possibilities opened up by having a high school student on a ride-along, or in a lab setting for the day. Then imagine the opportunities missed by never opening the door.
3. Offer positive influence
Most people can think of one or two people who have influenced their career. If we are going to inspire youth to pursue careers in agriculture and food, we have to be effective ambassadors for ag careers and grasp the opportunity to mentor those potential future employees.
It is important to provide a positive influence to those who have shown an interest, through in-person chats, emails, or formal mentorship programs.
It is also important to keep an open mind if someone does not have agriculture experience. Look beyond technical training and abilities to focus on soft skills such as teamwork, initiative and communication. As a mentor, give youth a chance to develop and apply their soft skills. These are attributes which are useful in all types of careers, whether someone is an employee, a leader, or an entrepreneur.
All three of these steps require action. However, they are all feasible. Our labour shortage affects businesses big and small in the food system, so everyone needs to step up to engage Gen Z to fill the gap.