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Volume 3, Issue 1
November 2010

Preparing Unemployed U.S. Veterans for Agriculture Industry Jobs

MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology and VETS to AG – Veteran's Agricultural Worker Training Program

The current economic climate has created hardship for many in Michigan, including veterans who serve our nation and return home to face unemployment and fragile living conditions that may lead to homelessness.

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In a unique partnership involving workforce development, education, and potential employers, the Vets to Ag - Veteran's Agricultural Worker Training Program addresses how to get veterans trained to re-enter the workforce in Michigan's agriculture industry.

The Michigan Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth (DELEG) created the project from "No Worker Left Behind" federal funding. It is supported by local Michigan Works! agencies, state and local veterans' services organizations, and shelters that serve homeless veterans.

Michigan's agricultural industry has an economic value estimated at more than $70 billion. The state has the second most diverse agricultural economy in the U.S., after California. Farm owners and operators continually look for ways to develop new and reliable sources of labor.

"We value our partnership with Michigan State University that has made this innovative workforce training program such a success," said DELEG Acting Director Andrew S. Levin. "MSU faculty and staff have been instrumental in developing curriculum and identifying meaningful instruction and hands-on experiences for the participants."

"Veterans already have transferable job skills and work experience," said Levin. "This type of targeted training allows veterans to prepare and compete for a wide range of good-paying jobs driven by the demand in agriculture and many other related industries and venues such as sports facilities, landscape companies, nurseries and greenhouses, golf courses and commercial turf grass installation and maintenance."

Tom Smith, Acting Associate Director of the MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology (MSU IAT), oversees MSU's participation. "The training is conducted during a six-week residential program at the MSU Kellogg Biological Station," said Smith. "MSU faculty and staff, including Extension Educators, as well as experts in the private sector, designed a dynamic and comprehensive learning experience. And we continue to refine the instruction and experiences for the participants."

Instruction includes basic plant and soil science, equipment and workplace safety, equipment operation, computer skills, pest management and preparation for the Michigan certified pesticide applicator exam, Red Cross CPR, and defibrillation training. In addition, conversational Spanish and migrant cultural understanding are part of the training, to better bridge any cultural issues working alongside industry employees. The instruction is 50 percent classroom and 50 percent in-the-field training.

"The goal is to offer a comprehensive set of credentials that put these vets in a stronger position of employable skills," Smith said. "So we also include instruction in topic areas such as budgeting and math, machinery operation, and skills assessments. We emphasize worker safety and continuing education to progress to positions of management in agriculture. It's a well-rounded approach with input from a variety of resources."

The program is free to qualified veterans, and includes room and board, classroom instruction, and hands-on training. "Veterans learn to work as part of a team in the military. The Vets to Ag training incorporates a similar team approach, and it works well," said Smith.

The first program ran during Fall 2009. MSU evaluated the debut program and expanded the curriculum in addition to offering participants a chance to return to the second program for further training. The second group training took place during February and March 2010.

For more information about Vets to Ag – Veteran's Agricultural Worker Training Program, contact Tom Smith, Acting Associate Director of MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology.

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Tom Smith, MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology