Thursday, November 6, 2008

An Overview of the Agribusiness Degree

Tomorrow I am giving a talk to students in Mexico (via teleconference) regarding the agribusiness degree, with special emphasis on the types of jobs our graduates take and the type of skills they are expected to possess. Below is the general talk I plan to give, written in the form of an outline, not a speech.

When a student graduates with an agribusiness or agricultural economics degree, what skills should they possess? The answer is social, business, computer, and communication skills, plus a unique understanding of agricultural markets and futures markets.

Social Skills: Graduates must have the appearance of a competent professional; including a firm handshake, a confident demeanor, professional manners, and actions that demonstrate responsibility and congeniality. The graduate should understand how to dress for the specific occasion, how to run a business meeting, how to network, speak with proper grammar, and understand the other person’s needs. These social skills prepare them for a career in sales of any good. We graduate students who sell pesticides and students who sell artificial knee replacements.

Business Skills: Second, they must possess the tools of a competent business person. This includes an intimate knowledge of accounting, finance, marketing, and management principles. Accounting ratios and balance sheets should be second nature, and so should net present value and loan amortization. Numerous graduates work in the banking industry and in the accounting department of firms. Finance and accounting are skills that depend on each other; finance skills without accounting skills are of little value, and vice-versa. Though they cannot be prepared for every marketing or management job, graduates should possess the basic fundamentals that allow them to learn their job quickly. Many graduates find themselves in positions managing goods from wheat in elevators to building doors for homes. A significant portion also lead marketing careers, typically but not always in the marketing of food items.

Computer Skills: With today’s advanced information technology and the ubiquitous presence of Microsoft Office, they should be proficient in Microsoft Excel, Word, and Power Point. Excel is especially important. The graduate should be able to sort and summarize data, and calculate basic statistics such as frequencies and averages. Learning tools such as PivotTables in college gives the student an advantage over coworkers with fewer computational skills. If there is one skill that should be considered the most important to possess, it would be proficiency in Microsoft Excel.

Communication Skills: An ability to communicate effectively is a high priority. Graduates should be able to write basic business documents such as emails, business letters, and business reports without an abundance of grammatical errors; the reader should also find the writing succinct and clear. However, it should be noted that graduates are not expected to be excellent writers, only that their writing should not be embarrassing to the organization. Of greater importance than writing are oral communication skills. An ability to present information in an organized, clear, and succinct manner is of paramount importance, as is to give the aura of confidence during the presentation. This includes formal oral presentations, perhaps using Power Point, and informal oral communications such as phone conversations.

Agribusiness Skills - Understanding Agricultural and Futures Markets: All of these aforementioned skills are general skills, and would be expected of any business major. Agricultural economics and agribusiness majors have the additional advantage of a unique understanding of agricultural markets. They should have a unique insight into the long- and short-run supply and demand relationships for agricultural products, fundamentals which extend nicely to other commodities whose supplies are fixed in the short-run, such as oil and natural gas. For example, one of our graduates participates in a weekly meeting called a supply and demand meeting. All such majors learn the intricacies of futures markets, including speculating, hedging, and the use of futures to predict prices. This understanding of futures naturally extends to futures trading of non-agricultural commodities such as oil and foreign currency.

How does the department of agricultural economics at oklahoma state university instill these skills?

Social Skills: The responsibility for instills social skills rests primarily on AGEC 3323, Agricultural Product Marketing and Sales. This class largely focuses on teaching students how to “sell themselves” and develop personal relationships with people, as well as other skills useful as a career in sales. A variety of other social skills are addressed. For instance, the class hosts a formal dinner where students are able to learn and demonstrate table manners.

Business Skills: Students take a variety of courses in management, marketing, accounting, and finance. Most of these courses are in the agricultural economics department, except for accounting. Students who focus on a specific area such as finance or marketing will take additional courses on that area in the business college.

Computer Skills: All students are required to take Quantitative Methods in Agricultural Economics which focuses on developing Excel skills, and the communication courses discussed below shortly integrate both Word and Power Point into the class activities.

Communication Skills: While communication activities are present in a majority of classes, students take six courses that focus specifically on written and oral communication skills.

Agribusiness Skills: From the introductory agricultural economics course to its more advanced counterparts, students gain a unique insight into the supply and demand of agricultural and food products. All students take Agricultural Marketing and Price Analysis, which studies futures markets extensively. A variety of senior level courses allow students to specialize in particular agribusiness topics, whether it be an additional course focusing solely on futures markets or a course learning how to calculate crop insurance premiums.

What are some examples of jobs taken by past graduates?

Marketing – Lindsey Cheek works at Damian International, a marketing firm. The firm’s clients include food producers who seek advice on how to promote and advertise their food products.

Manufacturing – Randis Galloway, Lindsey Kuzma, Amber Houser, Shea Griffin, Jeffrey Clark and other graduates work at Koch Industries where they primarily analyze market and accounting information to help Koch determine business strategies. For example, students may track sales of gasoline to identify potential markets for refined oil, or gather information on the cost of carpet production for rival firms.

Commodity Trading – Many former students (Melinda Shults, Tim Cassidy) work for firms like ADM where they buy or sell agricultural commodities such as soybeans and soybean oil. Some graduates actively speculate on commodity prices.

Chesapeake Oil and Gas – This employer routinely hires our students and asks them to perform a number of functions. For example, Lacy Mann was once charged with taking data on oil well depth and oil well costs and develop a model they could use to give potential customers estimate on the cost of drilling oil wells.

Government – Some graduates like Justin McConaghy work in Extension, and others like Allison Sherle and Curtis Stock work for the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Interest Groups – Megan Provost worked for American Farm Bureau, where she ran equilibrium displacement models to analyze the impacts of potential trade agreements on American agriculture.

Sales - This is one of the largest categories of agribusiness employers. While many have sales careers in agriculture, such as Monsanto pesticide salesman Travis Fenderson and ConAgra animal feed salespeople, many others sell non-agricultural goods and services such as life insurance and prosthetic knee and hip replacements.

Finance – Never a year goes by without a number of students taking jobs at a bank, often as a loan officer. Some are private banks, some are government-affiliated banks such as Farm Credit.

Self-Employed – One of our most successful graduates, Aaron Hughes, utilizes his business skills and personal motivation to develop land.

Higher Education – Many others go on to attend law school, vet school, graduate school, and medical school.

When an employer considers an agribusiness graduate for employment, what are they looking for?

For most jobs, the skills the student obtained from classes in college is small in importance next to the student’s personality. Employers are largely looking for students who have a high moral character, have a passion for their career and life, can work well with others, and can communicate effectively. Specific skills can be learned on the job.
How does an employer determine whether a student possesses this personality? It is determined largely through the personal interview. The employer places more importance on the personal interview as a judging tool than the students’ resume – much, much more. The second most important attribute employers want to see is that the student has participated in an internship or gained valuable work experience. This signals to the employer that the graduate works well within an organization. Finally, they will want to see that the student held a leadership position in a university organization, and the student made decent grades. Typically, the employer only cares that the student had a B average or better, though some employers like Koch Industries target students with high grades.
For some careers the employer specifically targets agribusiness students for the skills they learn in college. Some employers prefer our graduates because they understand commodity markets well, and some due to their more advanced Excel skills, compared to graduates from other departments.

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