Technological advancements in agriculture reinforce need for skilled workforce

By Erin Eagan

 

Statewide, Wisconsin’s technical colleges celebrated Ag Day on March 20 with activities, demonstrations and guest speakers. Industry experts from all across the state gathered to discuss the emergence of new technologies and the importance of maintaining a skilled workforce.

Similar to the manufacturing industry, advances in technology have helped drive agriculture to new heights. Tractors are now equipped with GPS. Moisture sensors alert farmers when soil needs to be watered. Movement detectors track the activity level of livestock. Drones send images of field conditions. This real-time information has improved time management, reduced waste and produced healthier crops.

“As computers are updating, so is everything in agriculture,” says Rachel Kroeplien, an Agribusiness Instructor at Lakeshore Technical College. “Everything can now be robotic on a farm to the point where we don’t have to push up feed and we don’t have to milk the cows. On the cropping side, we have a GPS system that tells us what areas need more fertilizer and where we need to look at different nutrient value in our soil. It’s giving us more intel than we’ve had in the past.”

For organizations both large and small, keeping pace with these changing technologies requires a skilled workforce that understands the advances happening in the industry. That means training current employees as well as educating future generations, which is where Wisconsin’s technical colleges play a key role.

Agriculture instructors at the colleges are industry experts who stay in touch with all the latest advancements. “As faculty, we are constantly on the road learning about new technology, whether it’s visiting new facilities, dairy farms that are implementing new technology, or going to conferences,” says Kroeplien. “It’s staying up to date with articles in various magazines or newspapers, the Internet, whatever you can find.”

Several years ago, Ocean Spray’s Wisconsin Rapids facility was going through a $70 million expansion to double in size and triple the staff when they encountered difficulty finding employees with the necessary skills to operate the technology used in production. “Finding workers familiar with our type of technology is not easy,” explained Kirk Willard, the company’s Director of Facilities. Ocean Spray then partnered with Mid-State Technical College to develop customized training for all supervisors and program leaders. “They allowed us to help interview instructors and set the curriculum very specific to what our needs are,” said Willard. “It has made our facility significantly better.”

Maintaining a skilled workforce continues to be an ongoing effort for agriculture. As the industry evolves, agricultural education will be at the forefront of this change. Wisconsin’s technical colleges will continue to educate the current and future agriculture workforce.

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