Getting to Know University of Illinois College of ACES
What are the courses/programs most needed today to prepare students for ag careers?
The foundations of the science of agriculture are still the same, so an understanding of the basics of agronomy, animal sciences, ag mechanics and the physical sciences are just as important now as they were a generation ago. Where we see shifts is in the content of those courses. Increasing emphasis in technology and sustainable practices are driving a good portion of these shifts.
Have degree requirements changed as agriculture becomes more global and tech-driven?
We are seeing more courses that include international perspectives and computer programming. Two of our departments, Crop Sciences and Animal Sciences, offer degrees in “___ + Computer Science” in partnership with our College of Engineering. This is to ensure graduates in those fields are ready to dive into emerging jobs where computer programming and software development are just as important as knowledge of agriculture. We also see more international experiences. More than 33 percent of College of ACES students have a study abroad experience.
Are new fields of study emerging to help students be more competent or more prepared in careers to find solutions to global ag challenges?
We see traditional fields of study shift to embrace increased emphasis in globalism and systems thinking required to understand agriculture in a world context. The university offers a number of “Grand Challenge” courses targeted at first-year students to help them learn about and reflect on international systems. We are also developing a new major, “Metropolitan Food and Environmental Systems,” to focus on the systems of food production and environmental practices in cities. One cannot understand agriculture today without recognizing the vast majority of the profession now sits within a globalized and metropolitan context.
Are there soft or hard skills students should seek to be most attractive to the hiring public?
While students can develop amazing technical skills in classrooms, if those same students are not armed with human skills they will not be as successful in today’s marketplace as candidates for employment. Perhaps more important than any other human skill is the fundamental capacity to work as a productive team member. All of the challenges implied above will not be solved by a single individual who directs others to act, they will be solved by teams working together to achieve global scale change. Students need to know how to develop relationships with others – especially those that do not share their heritage or cultural background – and engage in productive work with them. Cross-cultural fluency and managing interpersonal conflict are especially important in this context. Lastly, healthy social media behaviors are an understated skill. As social media become further integrated into society and business, being able to intentionally manage one’s social media presence will be an increasingly valuable skill for all.
How can students identify and pursue programs that will be in demand in the future?
More important than choice of major/program is choice of institution. Does the university explicitly signal competencies they provide and show how they prepare students for careers that may not exist yet? Do they talk about how they have shifted focus to align with changing times, or do they focus on the same topics and skills as always? If the university is future-focused and innovative, prospective students can change their minds about majors and still be set up for success. Regardless of how much the world changes, we ask a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds to know what they want. Attending a university with a strong culture of innovation protects them from having to live with their choices or transfer if they change their minds. We do not see a lot of new majors – the best universities are innovating within current majors and programs.