​​​​​​​Innovative education partnerships in agriculture and natural resources build workforce pipelines and economic ecosystems across Minnesota

Minnesota cornfield at sunset

Agriculture and Natural Resources are the foundation for much of Minnesota’s economy, and businesses are doing more with raw material than ever before. That also means that the workforce in agriculture and natural resources are becoming more skilled, and in a variety of ways. In turn, education programs across the state are responding to these changes and sometimes driving change themselves. For Agriculture and Natural Resources Month in June 2021, DEED’s workforce strategy consultants are highlighting some of the unique programming and partnerships that train the ever-evolving Agriculture and Natural Resources workforce. One of our primary roles is to coordinate collaboration between training organizations, education institutions, business and industry partners. Contact your regional Workforce Strategy Consultant for more information about these or other innovative workforce strategies in your area.

Here’s a look at cutting edge initiatives across Minnesota’s regions aimed at building a strong agriculture and natural resources workforce throughout the state.

Twin Cities Metro: Increasing Diversity in Environmental Careers (IDEC) program

Between 2016 to 2026, an estimated 44% of natural resource-related positions will be at risk of retirement-related turnover.  To address this projected high turnover, a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa (CCMI), MN Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), and MN Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) was created to eliminate barriers that prevented under-represented students from completing STEM degrees and obtaining environmental careers postgraduation. The Increasing Diversity in Environmental Careers (IDEC) program is an LCCMR project, with funding from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund that runs through 2024.

The IDEC program provides an opportunity for underrepresented STEM college students specifically women, racial and ethnic minorities, or individuals with disabilities to pursue a career in environmental and natural resources fields. One of the program’s goal is to increase the STEM graduation rate among Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) students. Through the IDEC program, students in STEM programs can learn and gain skillsets important to the natural resource industry through three components:

  1. Fellowship: Provides students with supportive community, yearly academic scholarship, and professional development. Fellows work with the program manager who coordinates resources and helps them navigate challenges during the journey. Fellows attend in-person cohort sessions every other month during the academic school year to stay connected to their peers and participate in professional development opportunities.
  2. Mentorship: Connect with professionals in the field who can share their experiences and support them. The mentorship aims to enhance college success, encourage personal and professional development, and promote career advancement by pairing fellows with employees at one of the participating state agencies.
  3. Internship: Allows fellows to learn more about environmental and natural resources career paths through paid, on-the-job experience. The internship includes first-year summer rotations and second and third-year summer agency internships. Paid internships usually run from May to August.

Southern Minnesota: Agricultural Diversity

Southern Minnesota is an agricultural epicenter for the state. Four of the top six, six of the top ten, and 13 of the top 20 agriculture counties in the state are located right here in Southern Minnesota. Minnesota ranks in the Top 10 nationally in production of  turkeys, hogs, soybeans, corn, and sugar beets and the southern region is home to 42% of the state’s farms, while accounting for a whopping 55% of the state’s market value of agriculture products sold. As you can imagine, the industry in the region is booming, making up over one-third of the state’s agriculture employment and continuing to add new jobs to the region at a 25.5% growth rate, compared to the rest of the state at 6.2% across all industries.

The region is not new to innovation, from growing hemp and extracting CBD oil in Waseca, to hatching shrimp in Balaton. Southern Minnesota is home to initiatives aimed at introducing women and youth to the sector. The region  is also home to both GreenSeam, an economic development food and agriculture industry cluster for southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, as well as the Southern Agriculture Center of Excellence , which is a collaborative between South Central college, Minnesota West Community & Technical College, Southwest Minnesota State University, Riverland Community College and Minnesota State. 

Central Minnesota: Education Excellence

Central Minnesota is known for its strong collegiate Environmental Studies and Agricultural programs. Ridgewater College offers Minnesota’s largest two-year Agriculture program and has recently earned national honors as an Outstanding Postsecondary / Adult Agricultural Education program. St. Cloud Technical and Community College (SCTCC) offers Associates Degrees in Environmental Science, which focuses on the interactions of physical, chemical, and biological processes in the ecosystems, and Farm Management. All these programs offer a wide range of transferable skills that are useful in today’s job market to pursue careers in farming, chemistry, biology, animal science, agricultural services, water/soil/nature conservancy, pollution control, laboratory technician and numerous others. St. Cloud State University also offers a plethora of degrees for students who want to continue their education in this industry.  

Northeast Minnesota: ‘Goldilocks’ Jobs in Mining Give Back

There are many reasons why Minnesota should be proud of its mining industry. As a USGS Top 5 mining state, Minnesota provides raw materials to the country and the world. Onlookers can see and witness the high-quality pellets made at the iron mines on ships leaving the Duluth, Superior, Two Harbors and Silver Bay Ports.

Although mining is still a key industry in Northeast Minnesota, mining jobs have slowly declined in over the last 20 years. According to Carson Gorecki, Labor Market Analyst for DEED in Northeast Minnesota, “The mining industry shrank by nearly a third over the past two decades, equivalent to a loss of over 1,700 jobs.” But while there are fewer regional jobs in Mining than in other major industries such as health care, the pay is exceptional. In 2020, there were 3,889 jobs in the mining industry at 33 firms, which paid an average of $89,076 annually. Many of these positions require a 2-year degree or less, representing some of the few remaining “goldilocks jobs” that offer higher pay without crushing educational debt. According to Kelsey Johnson, President of the Iron Mining Association, the industry’s success also benefits the community at large. through contributions to Minnesota’s Permanent School Fund. “This year has been an exceptionally good year” says Johnson, “and because of that the taconite (iron mining) industry will contribute more than $35 million to K-12 districts throughout Minnesota and another $6 million in scholarships to the University of Minnesota.”

Northwest MN: Let’s get Technical

The agricultural equipment industry has a significant shortage of qualified technicians trained to manufacture, use, and maintain modern equipment. This includes skillsets in geospatial tech, robotics, electronics, sensors, computer controls, and other technologies used in modern farming equipment and operations. To address this agricultural technician workforce gap, the Technical Applications in Agriculture (TAA) project builds partnerships among community college and secondary school faculty, as well as equipment manufacturers and dealers.

This partnership collaborates to develop and implement a secondary school curriculum and faculty professional development initiative for ag-tech education. High school students who complete the coursework  earn college credit and can move seamlessly into an agricultural technician training program at partnering colleges or directly into the agricultural technician workforce.

Ultimately, the project goal is to build an agricultural technician program for high schools that focuses on skills and knowledge that are directly relevant and transferable to higher education and to agricultural technician careers. The partners, led by AgCentric at Central Lakes College and the Curriculum for Agricultural Science Education (CASE), include Northland Community and Technical College, Ridgewater College, and industry collaborators. These partners will leverage their resources and experience to ensure this project meets industry, student, and faculty needs in agricultural technician education.