Agricultural training and employment opportunities

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For years agriculture was one of a few sectors that lagged behind when it came to attracting new or young employees to the industry. This was a worldwide phenomenon, as young people did not really view the agricultural sector as an attractive industry in which to build a career.

Although there were many reasons for the perceived ‘unattractiveness’ of the agricultural industry, the main drivers were probably that the industry was regarded as being ‘low tech’ in a world driven by technology, and that it was a relatively ‘dirty’ and harsh environment to work in.

Given the rapid change in  technological development and urbanisation over the past two decades, industries such as engineering, information technology, finance and construction seemed more attractive than agriculture and definitely drew the attention of the ambitious youth.

Newly revived interest

This trend has, however, changed over the last number of years and today we see a new wave of students who want to become involved in the agricultural sector. The agricultural sector has caught up with technology (and technology with it) and is currently evolving faster than ever. This once ‘old’ and slow sector has suddenly become attractive again.

I personally believe the fact that more and more consumers want to know how and where their food comes from helped to not only renew efforts to educate the general public in how primary agriculture works, but it also piqued the interest of the youth.

In order to become involved and build a career in agriculture, some form of training is usually required (although it isn’t always a prerequisite). In this article I would like to shed some light on the different types of agricultural qualifications available in South Africa and the most likely form of employment available once a student has obtained one of these qualifications.

Certificates and diplomas

Certificates and diplomas in agricultural programmes are usually offered by agricultural colleges such as Grootfontein, Elsenburg and Cedara, as well as by private institutions such as Peritum Agri Institute and some universities of technology such as the Central University of Technology (CUT).

Certificates and diplomas are usually completed over two (240 credits, NQF 5) or three (360 credits, NQF 6) years and can be regarded as a very practical directed qualification. Apart from theory and formal practical training, students will in many instances also complete a practical year working on a farm as part of the qualification requirements.

Credit-bearing short courses in agriculture are also available from various institutions and graduates usually receive a certificate upon successful completion of such a course. These short courses are becoming more and more popular as students do not always have the time (a lengthy two to three years) or the financial means to register for and complete a 240- or 360-credit course.

These qualifications, given their practical nature, allow graduates to seek employment in various sections of the agricultural value chain where their practical expertise is needed. This includes primary agricultural production, farm management and field agents working for companies in the wool, mohair or agronomy industries. These graduates know how to handle animals, class and sort natural fibre, and identify problems relating to crop production.

Degrees in agriculture

Degrees in agricultural studies usually entail a B.Sc Agriculture, B. Agriculture and in some instances a B.Com degree. These degrees are offered by universities and depending on the type of degree, are usually three (360 credits, NQF 7) or four (480 credits, NQF 8) years in duration, while the NQF 8 degrees are usually professional degrees that include an honours year.

I believe that the greatest confusion surrounding agricultural training relates to the differences between the degrees that universities offer. A B.Sc Agriculture degree is often regarded as superior to a B. Agriculture degree. This is, however, not the case. These are two entirely separate degrees, each with its own purpose and application.

The Bachelor of Science (B.Sc) in Agriculture degree applies to scientific or more technical aspects, whereas the Bachelor of Agriculture (B.Agric) degree is more focused on production and management. A Bachelor of Commerce (B.Com) can therefore almost be regarded as the same type of degree as the B.Agric, but in commerce and not agriculture.

The difference between a B.Sc Agric Animal Science and a B.Agric Animal Production degree, for example, is that the B.Sc degree focuses on the scientific principles of nutrition, breeding and physiology, while the B.Agric degree focuses on animal production systems. The one is therefore not superior to the other, but rather has a different focus or outcome.

A B.Sc graduate will therefore be more likely to find work at an animal feed factory where he/she must formulate feed concentrates, while the B.Agric graduate could find work in the physical primary production sector as a production manager at a feedlot or as a livestock producer.

Fields of study

Whether a student is studying towards earning a certificate, diploma or degree in agriculture, he/she should usually choose a specific field of study. The main study fields in agricultural training in South Africa are agricultural economics; management and extension; animal, wildlife and rangeland sciences; and crop, soil and climate sciences.

Within each of these fields there are usually a range of specialisations. In agricultural economics students can, for example, study towards a B.Sc Agric, B.Agric or B.Com degree, whereas agricultural management is usually offered as a B.Agric degree. In terms of crop sciences options such as agronomy, hortology, and plant breeding are available as B.Sc Agric degrees, while crop production and irrigation management usually form part of the B.Agric degrees.

Animal science can be divided into specialisation fields relating to nutrition, breeding or physiology or a combination thereof in a B.Sc degree, while livestock production and rangeland or wildlife management are popular B.Agric choices.

At some tertiary institutions students are allowed to study towards obtaining a combined degree where, for example, animal science can be the major while agricultural economics is the minor. These dual degrees provide the student with the option to pursue either one of the two study fields in postgraduate (master’s and doctoral) studies.

Other degrees

Some students would like to pursue a career in the agricultural and food sector, but do not necessarily want to study towards an agricultural qualification. There are many qualifications that closely link with the agricultural and food sector. In fact, the possibilities are almost endless.

Many biochemists, microbiologists and even chemists find themselves operating in the agricultural environment. Accountants, marketers, financial advisors, engineers, and even lawyers and advocates are also not an uncommon sight. Other degrees that move closer to agriculture include plant pathology, entomology, veterinary science, and food and consumer science, to name a few.

The agricultural sector as a whole, from different input suppliers to the marketing of the final consumable product, is very large and diverse, with employment opportunities available to a range of candidates.

Put on your thinking cap

Tertiary education institutions, to my mind, do not necessarily teach you how to do something specific, but rather teach you how to learn and explore. This is why many students with an agricultural qualification often find employment and successful careers outside of agriculture, while others with degrees not even closely related to agriculture can find employment and career success in the agricultural sector.

Agriculture remains a wonderful, interesting and rapidly evolving sector with many opportunities. As a student, employee or employer in this sector you can rest assured that a future in providing food and fibre to the consumer, will be bright.

Agriculture remains a wonderful, interesting and rapidly evolving sector with many opportunities. As a student, employee or employer in this sector you can rest assured that a future in providing food and fibre to the consumer, will be bright.
Dr Frikkie Maré, FarmBiz

For more information contact Frikkie Maré at MareFA@ufs.ac.za.