ICM partners with AFA to broaden ag workforce

By Ron Kotrba | August 27, 2007
A real and growing concern for ag-based industries is a shortage of workers, and projections indicate the problem will only get worse. According to Russ Weathers, CEO of Agriculture Future of America (AFA), 60 percent of the current ag workforce will be retired in 10 years. If gone unchecked, a shrinking workforce will limit rural revitalization efforts, such as that undertaken by the growing U.S. ethanol industry. Therefore, leading process technology firm ICM Inc. entered into a three-year partnership with the AFA to encourage and assist young people in arming themselves with the education and knowledge needed in the increasingly sophisticated industries of agricultural processing.

The AFA was formed more than a decade ago to create partnerships with businesses operating in rural communities in order to identify, encourage and support outstanding college students preparing for ag-oriented careers. "We pick up where [the 4-H Club] and similar organizations leave off," he said. In its new partnership with ICM, the AFA is currently mapping out the programmatic framework. The core of the partnership is to offer scholarship funds and internships to eligible students from rural communities where ICM ethanol plants are located. "We're laying the groundwork for the program, and we're identifying 20 rural communities between now and February of next year," Weathers told EPM. "Implementation of the scholarship will come into cycle next year."

This is a community-based model. Eligible students must be talented young people, who have contributed positively to their communities both in and out of school. Candidates must also write an essay about why they are interested in a career in the agricultural sector. "They have to demonstrate that they are committed and passionate," Weathers said. The last leg of the selection procedure is an interviewing process conducted in the respective community, run by selected community members. A list of references is required, as well, which is important because it demonstrates the ability to network and build relationships. The winning students will be eligible for scholarship money to assist in paying tuition and internships at the local ICM ethanol plant. "The internships will vary from operation to operation, and we'll assist in that development," Weathers said. The purpose of the internships won't be learning specifics of individual functions, but instead gaining perspectives on total operations inside the ethanol plant. "Out of that, students can gain focus for their careers," Weathers said. The AFA also offers a rigorous career and leadership training program every November in Kansas City, Mo., which is a requirement for those selected.

A lack of education in the biofuels sector has been a concern for years. "One of the most important challenges is access to a quality workforce that is educated and trained for work in the biofuels space," said Bruce Rastetter, founder of Hawkeye Renewables, before a House committee recently. Legislation pending on Capitol Hill, called the New Era Act, would make grant funding available to community colleges to establish renewable energy education and training programs.