By Michele F. Mihaljevich
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – A story published by USA Today over the summer discussed how climate change may impact a college student’s choice of major or the type of job that student might look for after graduation.
According to the article, environmental and sustainability studies are booming in colleges. A survey of Gen Z and Millennial workers found more than 40 percent either have or plan to change jobs due to climate concerns, the story stated.
The story specifically mentioned plant breeder and gardener as two agriculture-related fields the author said would be crucial to coping with global warming. Other careers mentioned included hydrologist, traffic engineer and electrician.
Dr. Laura Bowling is the director of Purdue University’s Natural Resources and Environmental Science (NRES) program. She is also a professor of water resources in the university’s Department of Agronomy. One of her roles is to mentor environmental science students and students in the soil and water concentration for agronomy.
“These students are absolutely aware of climate change and motivated to do something about it through their future career, whether it is in the realm of policy, providing advice to farmers and other land owners on how to adapt their practices to better manage climate impacts or preserve natural ecosystems,” Bowling explained. “I teach a first-year orientation course for the NRES majors (approximately 40-50 students per year). Students have to submit a one-two minute video introducing themselves and expressing what motivated them to study environmental science. Last year, I would say that at least 40 percent mentioned climate change, and the next biggest topic was conservation.”
Students studying breeding and genetics in the agronomy department seem to have different reasons for choosing their majors, said Melinda Smith, a recruiter in the department. “A large percentage of the students I meet with are interested in plant genetics,” she noted. “Rarely do they mention climate change as something that impacted their decision. In most cases, they are looking at a future in agriculture because they love being outdoors, have a background in agriculture or just want to be part of the bigger picture.”
Bowling said she agrees with the USA Today story that plant breeding might be an up and coming field due to climate change. “If you look at the research profile for many of our breeding and genetics faculty, they are breeding to improve tolerance to drought and heat, and sometimes excess water stress. These are all driven by the need to maintain agricultural productivity with increasing environmental stresses.”
A commonality across many of the disciplines in the College of Agriculture is a close relationship to weather and climate as a driving force for management and productivity, she pointed out.
“As a result, many ag-related careers could potentially see increased demand as business-as-usual strategies are no longer adequate for keeping up with changing conditions,” Bowling said. “Agronomists are the ones that are studying how to alter in-field management to make traditional crops like corn and soybeans more resilient to weather extremes, while also minimizing impact to the environment. “Soil scientists and natural resources specialists work for agencies like the Natural Resources Conservation Service to advise farmers on conservation practices to protect their land and downstream ecosystems. Entomologists, weed scientists and plant pathologists are addressing changing pest populations, foresters are adapting to emerging pests attacking trees, horticulturalists.”
At Iowa State University, there is definitely a population of students that have come to college to make their mark in the area of climate change, said Mike Gaul, director of career services for the university’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.
“The reality is it’s likely a small population, smaller than one might think, at least here at ISU, and derived from a handful of targeted majors,” he said. “Like most, they probably want to combine classroom experience with practical experience (internships) in hopes of parlaying this into a full-time position or graduate school.”
For years, ISU has had a fairly high percentage of agronomy undergraduates that head on to graduate school for plant breeding studies, Gaul said. The idea that plant breeding may be an up-and-coming career due to climate change could help pull more students into agronomy programs, he said. “I know our numbers here have slipped some over the past few years but (I) do know our incoming class for agronomy freshmen this year is up 40 percent from last so that is certainly encouraging.”
ISU’s largest ag-related majors include animal science, animal ecology, ag business and ag studies, Gaul said. Those majors that align well with climate change are smaller, such as environmental science, global resource systems and agronomy. The largest departments in Purdue’s College of Agriculture are agricultural economics, animal science and ag and biological engineering, according to Bowling.
Potential employers who recruit Purdue students for full-time jobs or internships are generally looking at a specific set of skills that indicate an ability to respond to changing weather conditions in the context of the position, and maybe knowledge of what are the particular weather-related threats to the local region, she stated. As opposed, she added, to broader understanding of the complexities of the climate system that are leading to these changes.
Tom Koch, research manager for Atlanta-Ind., based Beck’s, said breeding has always had to focus on a changing climate. “We don’t know if next year will be cool and wet, or hot and dry. To help the farmer succeed, we need to provide products that are robust no matter the weather. We continue to hire a staff that is able to work toward building a robust product lineup that can handle any stress the crop will face.”
At ISU, very few potential employers mention climate change as something they hope their hires might be interested in, Gaul said. “Most (companies) that patronize our office are strong in production ag areas. I think it’s a combination of the student’s major and their own personal story that allows them to connect with potential employers.”
Bowling said the students she works with every day have chosen their fields of study because they are passionate about making the earth a better place. “They are coming to college knowledgeable about climate change and its impacts, and frustrated that more is not being done. They are ready for the current generation in power to get out of the way so that they can make a difference.”