Getting veterans back to work

Securing farm labor has always been a problem, but creative thinking may help ease the burden. A Michigan coalition has developed a program to train and match unemployed veterans with agricultural employers.

The Michigan State University program provided broad training in general agricultural practices.
Photo courtesy of morguefile.com.

Facts and figures

Both the agricultural and military veteran communities frequently experience employment problems. Depending on the region, growers report challenges in securing local workers or complying with immigration and H-2A requirements when using foreign laborers.

While recent reports indicate that military veterans’ unemployment rates are comparable to those of nonveterans, former soldiers sometimes experience obstacles in maintaining employment. Disability, substance abuse problems and homelessness are not uncommon barriers to earning a living as a civilian.

Bringing vets and farmers together

In 2009, the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth and Michigan Works! were seeking to assist a particular group of veterans, those lacking permanent housing, in finding steady employment. Knowing of an ongoing need for labor in the Christmas tree industry, officials evaluated training vets for such work.

Last summer, they contacted Michigan State University (MSU, www.msu.edu) about providing the program. Vets to Ag, as the effort became known, fell into the lap of Dr. Eunice Foster, director of the school’s Institute of Agricultural Technology.

“[Our veterans represent] a wealth of human resources that we need to preserve because we really need them,” Foster says. “Michigan is the new pioneer because we must remake our state because of the car industry [difficulties].” The state’s unemployment rate stood at 14 percent in April.

With that in mind, and recognizing that agriculture is the state’s second largest and fastest growing industry, Foster and her team developed a three-week training program at top speed, unveiling the first course in September. The first group of 15 participants was selected and screened by Michigan Works!, which looked at academic skills, disability and substance abuse problems. At present, Vets to Ag can only serve male veterans with few issues. Because one-fourth of the homeless are vets, Michigan Works! sought out that group for the pilot program.

Designing Vets to Ag

The initial program focused on training workers for the Christmas tree industry. To fully immerse the students and maximize the brief time span of the course, a residential program was planned. Housed at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners (www.kbs.msu.edu/), Michigan Works! funding provided room, board and training at no cost to participants.

Skills specific to Christmas trees, such as pruning, shearing and harvesting, were taught, along with broader agricultural practices. Basic plant and soil science, pesticide application, equipment use and first aid were included. Instructors from MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, including the departments of Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife and Crop and Soil Sciences, led the training along with the Institute of Agricultural Technology staff, MSU Extension staff and industry experts, including Christmas tree farmers.

Stacy Rocklin, an MSU program coordinator for applied plant science, served as the on-site coordinator for the inaugural course. She says a typical day included classroom instruction each morning and some afternoons, and some days the participants volunteered in the Kellogg Forest, applying the classroom training through such tasks as cutting wood and plowing snow. Evenings were spent in study sessions, with an emphasis on preparing for certification tests.

“We included basic math skills for those who needed them and a Spanish language and culture introduction to help participants relate to migrant workers [that they might encounter on the job],” she adds.

Rocklin has been involved in training diverse populations, but she found the vets to be unique. They were an inquisitive group that didn’t hesitate to ask questions. Due to an emphasis on integrated pest management, math skills were important, a requirement that frightened those who had previously struggled with the subject. Rocklin’s own math phobia helped her lead students in overcoming that obstacle. In fact, Foster says that some became so proficient that they were tutoring others by the end of the course.

The Vets to Ag program was initially designed to train workers for the Christmas tree industry.
Photo by Ken Hammond, ARS.

Refining the program

Program officials soon realized that steady employment would require training beyond the Christmas tree commodity. The second training, conducted in March, expanded coursework to prepare students for work with other crops, such as fruits and vegetables. Potential employers were surveyed as to their needs. Training for commercial drivers’ licenses, resume writing, interviewing and detailed plant and soil science was incorporated. The length of the program was increased, with a three-week basic course followed by three weeks of advanced study. Officials believe that future courses should be at least six weeks long.

With two courses under their belts, Foster, Rocklin and the others involved are now evaluating the program. Before continuing, they want to ensure that Vets to Ag is the best it can be. They are focusing on ways to increase the chance that trainees are prepared for full-time, rather than seasonal, employment. In addition, Foster is interested in securing wraparound services to help graduates with issues such as housing, financial management and substance abuse. Rocklin hopes to begin the process of securing employment before the training begins and aims to aid participants in being more self-reliant.

As for the vets themselves, their program evaluations have been positive. While some claimed they needed more time to absorb the material, most believed the program gave them a new start.

“One man said, ‘I never noticed or thought about plants before,’” Rocklin says. “He added, ‘This changed how I look at the world around me.’”

A middle-aged Army veteran who welcomed the opportunity when he was laid off after 13 years in welding was typical of the participants. He recognized that adding agricultural training to his skill set would increase his ability to stay employed and be able to provide for his three children. Others had lost custody of their children due to the inability to care for them, while some were recruited right out of homeless shelters. All agreed that Vets to Ag was the second chance they needed. With full-time agricultural employment, graduates can expect to earn around $30,000 annually in Michigan.

The program combined classroom and hands-on training.
Photo courtesy of morguefile.com.

Outcomes

During the pilot courses, 29 men, ranging in age from their 20s to 50s, were trained and about 50 percent are now employed in agriculture. A graduate of the first class was hired to help conduct the following course. Seventy percent of participants passed pesticide application certification testing and some passed testing in areas that were not taught during the course.

Rocklin says maintaining contact with graduates and helping them retain employment has been one of the greatest challenges. She and Foster hope that staff for client follow-up and building relationships with potential employers can be added.

“It is through programs like Vets to Ag where Michigan State University proves its ability to be flexible to meet the needs of the worker and the employer. It is truly the role of a land-grant institution to connect a workforce with employers who need them,” Jeffrey Armstrong, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said in a news release.

During this time of economic uncertainty, the need for agricultural workers remains high. Replication of Vets to Ag, believed to be the only program of its kind, with other populations across the country may be a viable way to ease both unemployment and farm labor challenges.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.