New fertile ground for tech jobs: The farm

Growing up in Little Rock, Arkansas, Tracy House never saw a soy bean or a corn seed, much less the high tech equipment used by today's farmers. That is, until he interned with Monsanto.

"I never knew how much technology went into farming, and once I got onto that tractor it was kind of like stepping on a spaceship," he said. "And I was like 'wow,' there's a lot that goes into agriculture."

Agriculture companies like Monsanto are trying to replicate that "wow factor" many times over with recruits. Potential hires are in short supply, and some of the most coveted college graduates are being snapped up by Silicon Valley firms.

How big is the shortage? A 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Purdue University estimates that high skilled jobs in agriculture will outpace the number of college graduates qualified to fill them by 22,500 each year. While half of the job openings are in business management, 27 percent are in the highly competitive STEM space or science, math engineering and technology.

"Some of the most difficult-to-fill positions tend to be software engineers. The competition is vast," said Melissa Harper, Monsanto's vice president of global talent acquisition, inclusion and diversity. "Everyone is looking for data scientists, those are people who not only understand data but have the ability to translate it into commercial insights for farmers, and the third would be cybersecurity."

Tracy House, Monsanto production manager
CNBC
Tracy House, Monsanto production manager

A few things are fueling the need for high skilled jobs in agriculture. First is the need to feed a growing, global population, one the United Nations estimates will increase by 2.4 billion people by 2050. Feeding the future population of 9.6 billion will likely be done with less labor, water and land, and that is where tech comes in.

"The opportunity to use data in meaningful and new ways means that we need new and different types of skills and competences to drive agriculture technology forward," said Harper.

She said this has prompted Monsanto to change the way it recruits, and it has worked to make a proactive pipeline of talent. It now uses social media and blogs to attract new hires, and pulls from its well-established internship program. That program draws 500 college students a year from around the globe.

It has also established deep ties to a number of colleges, including a decade-long association with the 1890 schools — historically black land-grant colleges.

"That partnership shows up as an opportunity to create an annual development program where selected students join us at our world's headquarters and spend time with us learning about the agro business broadly, but also preparing for future careers," said Harper.

House came to Monsanto via University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, one of the 1890s schools. His three internships with the company over his college career changed his focus from a career in construction management to agriculture.

"It's a lot cooler than I expected it to because I mean growing up you see farmers on cartoons or on TV and they don't really seem like it's much to the job. You just put a seed in the ground and it grows,'" he said. "But with Monsanto I have learned that there is a lot more that goes into agriculture. and there is a lot of science and technology that goes into growing the seed that we sell."

House, 26, is now a production manager at one of Monsanto's inspection sites in southeastern Missouri. The facility inspects billions of soy bean seeds each year before they are shipped to dealers, mostly in the southeastern United States.

"I never really thought about where my food came from, and I never really thought about how does this bag of chips become a bag of chips," House said. "Now I flip it (the bag of chips) over and I read the ingredients. It makes me think, 'Hey, I may have had a hand in this bag of chips coming to be.'"


Tracy House (R)
CNBC
Tracy House (R)

Coming to Monsanto for these high skilled positions requires a four-year degree at a minimum, and in other cases, advanced degrees, Harper said. The pay varies, depending on skill and experience, she said.

"We do pay competitively, specifically when you think about the data science positions," she said. "Pay can range anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000, and some of our specific ag science programs, such as agronomist and site leaders, it can be a broader range, anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, of course depending on experience and geography."

Some 2,000 west of Monsanto's headquarters in St. Louis, a California city with deep roots in agriculture is working to prepare students for the wave of change in agriculture. The economy of Watsonville, a city of around 55,000, is heavily dependent on the fields that surround it. The city's youth though, who make up about half of its population, are not keen on working the fields like many of their parents have done.

"They want to be here, but they're struggling to find opportunities and trying to see where they can make a career and a good living," said Jacob Martinez, founder of the city's Digital Nest, a workplace development center for teens. "And what we are seeing is it could be ag."

High tech ag specifically. For 12 years, Martinez has worked in Watsonville to build a computer science workforce. The Digital Nest, a brand new 4,500-square-foot facility, is the latest product of his and the community's efforts to teach students skills they will need in the modern workplace. Funded by Watsonville, individual donors, businesses and foundations, it is modeled after the open, light and well-equipment workspaces you find at Google and Twitter.


Tracy House (L)
CNBC
Tracy House (L)

"We have everything from laptops to digital cameras to recording equipment, drawing tablets, you name it we have it here," said Martinez.

While the Digital Nest is not solely focused on steering its students into the higher tech areas in agriculture, Martinez said it's a logical place to start, given so many of them have family members working in it.

"The youth here are anchored to this community, their families are here, they want to be close to home. They don't necessarily want to pick up everything and leave the community," he said. "If the Digital Nest can create that talent pool and infuse these (ag) companies with these rich exciting young talent, then we'll see these agricultural companies grow and be more efficient, producing more, and then we'll see good paying jobs locally that our youth can fill."

Recently the Digital Nest co-sponsored an ag-hackathon with a local community college and the state's farm bureau where six teams competed to build mobile apps for agriculture. This year, it is working with a grant from the utility PG&E to develop mobile apps for small growers.

"There's a few things that the small growers need: One is they need information to be pushed out to the people working the fields. And then they also need to be capturing information out in the fields and bringing it back to the central office," Martinez said. "There's a lot of interest from growers about how to be more efficient in terms of water use and the way they're putting resources into the fields. So we're starting to talk to companies about having our youth here work on developing applications that capture data around water usage, around soil composition, so that the growers and the business owners can see what's the most fruitful fields as well as how they're using the resources in the fields."