Viroqua native Katie Wendorf is currently a sophomore attending Harvard University, studying chemistry, and plans on attending medical school after receiving her undergraduate degree. She attributes her success in school to being an active member of her local high school's FFA chapter.
"Through my FFA involvement I was able to apply my passion for the industry and apply skills and knowledge I gained in agricultural education. I was very active on the Viroqua FFA dairy cattle evaluation team where I learned a lot about analysis and decision making, while developing leadership experience – great skills to have and use even in non-agriculture settings," Wendorf says.
Katie's agricultural education and high school FFA program was, and will continue to be, a key part of her success. Unlike Katie, many students fail to graduate high school or obtain the skillsets needed to enter the workforce today. In fact, there are troubling signs that the U.S. is failing to meet its obligation to prepare millions of young adults for the job force.
The U.S. has the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world, according to Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century. Furthermore, only four in 10 Americans have obtained an associate's or bachelor's degree by their mid-twenties.
These facts are even more disconcerting when you look at the number of students who don't even make it to college. Every year, one million students leave high school before earning a high school degree. "Many drop out because they struggle academically but large numbers say they dropped out because they felt their classes were not interesting, and that high school was unrelentingly boring," states the report.
As a result of both of these issues the U.S. faces the sober reality that if current trends persist, the percentage of young adults with a post-secondary degree may actually drop, reversing a long history in which children have generally been better educated than their parents. "This would be a stunning setback for a nation that led the entire world in educating its young for over a century," states the report. Not to mention the demand for qualified workers could surpass the number available.
The Harvard Graduate School of Education, who released the report this past year, says that the national strategy for education and youth development has been too narrowly focused on an academic, classroom-based approach.
Meeting the challenge
Wisconsin, unlike other states is better prepared to meet this challenge. The agriculture industry along with several others took proactive steps in the 90's to develop the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program. This program has since matured into the nation's largest apprenticeship opportunity for high school students. Under the two-year program, high school juniors and seniors complete up to 900 hours of work-based leaning and related courses. Many also earn college credits.
Apprenticeships are now offered in fields ranging from healthcare and manufacturing to IT, hospitality and agriculture. Apprenticeships are available in nearly half of Wisconsin's school districts, and the program serves about 2,000 students at any given time. Over 75 percent of youth apprenticeship graduates enroll in a technical college or university, and over 60 percent complete their degrees, far higher than the national average. What's more, over 85 percent of graduates are employed after leaving high school, and a stunning 98 percent of participating employers say they would recommend it to others. Wisconsin is recognized in the Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century report as an example of a state taking action to establish key elements of a system to provide work-linked learning opportunities for young people.
Beyond the Apprenticeship Program, Wisconsin has several agricultural education and workforce groups looking to keep the state's $59 billion industry strong and growing.
"The Pathways to Prosperity report confirms the need and importance for the work that the Wisconsin Agriculture Education Foundation is doing in conjunction with the Wisconsin Agriculture Education and Workforce Development Council. These organizations are working to help assure a quality workforce for Wisconsin agriculture," says Paul Larson, president of the Wisconsin Agricultural Education Foundation and agriculture educator at Freedom High School. "At our Council meetings, we often discuss the needs of the industry and how to best focus in on those needs on the classroom level of Wisconsin schools. The partnership with Wisconsin Association of Agriculture Educators has helped get that information and needed trainings to teachers and others out in the schools each day."
"I believe we will always need experience-based programs in schools to provide students entry level skills for work and to better prepare them for a post-secondary program, technical college or four-year university. Currently in agriculture we are short at least 10 percent of qualified employees and that number is expected to balloon to 20 percent as more baby boomers retire," comments Larson.
Wisconsin's agriculture educators and FFA advisors focus on helping students understand underlying theory – not only how things work, but why – through hands-on learning. This philosophy isn't simply about learning it's also about how to enable young people to make a successful transition to working life. What is most noticeable about the best European vocational systems is the investment, social as well as financial, that society makes in supporting this transition. Employers and educators together see their role as not only developing the next generation of workers, but also as helping young people make the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Employers notice when job applicants have an FFA background. "When we are hiring for a position, any candidate that has FFA on their resume stands out against the pool of applicants," says Steven Van Lannen, executive vice president with American Foods Group, LLC. "When I make a phone call to an applicant who is a former FFA student, I know that individual will demonstrate a certain level of leadership skills above a typical job applicant. These leadership skills are just as important as a person's technical skill set." Van Lannen also knows firsthand the benefits of being involved in the FFA as he himself is a past Wisconsin state FFA officer.
The Wisconsin FFA Foundation works to make those connections between past, present and future FFA members with supporting agricultural businesses and industry organizations. "We are encouraged by the increased membership gains we saw in 2011 and appreciate the financial support we continually receive from donors of all levels to continue providing these youth with opportunities to grow in and give back to the agriculture, food and natural resources industry," says Nicole Nelson, executive director of the Wisconsin FFA Foundation. "We've shared our thoughts and concerns as schools have considered cutting programs and tightening their budgets and are appreciative of the support that we've received from alumni, school districts, legislators, and so many others."
Application of skills and knowledge learned is the key to connecting our current workforce to where future need for skilled labor exists; a realistic path from secondary education to employability is needed.
"Today's FFA student members will be key contributors to some of the largest issues our world will face," says Nelson. "Through their future careers in the agriculture, food and natural resources industry, they will work on matters such as feeding a growing population, preserving our natural resources, ensuring consumers that food sources are safe and healthy, and so much more, that is why hands-on experiences, such as SAEs, are a great education tool to learn valuable skills for a growing and changing agriculture industry."