Virginia Tech has won a $2.5 million federal contract to help Armenia, a country with a 40 percent unemployment rate among young people, improve the competitiveness of its agricultural workforce.

Those who will benefit from the work are college students in Yerevan, the capital, who are studying to assume leadership roles in the food and agribusiness sector.

The five-year program, Innovate-Armenia, is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The work will take place at the International Center of Agribusiness Research and Education, which is affiliated with the Armenian National Agrarian University.

"Armenia, situated in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia, is emerging from decades as a command economy," said Tom Hammett, director of a related program that oversees the work. "The grant is designed to give young people skills that will make them competitive in the new, market-based economy."

The curriculum will cover food safety, food production, and food processing, and will also offer training in business, economics, marketing, and management.

"A big part of our work will be to provide students the opportunity to construct a skillset that is required in a free market economy," said Angela Neilan, program manager for the venture. Along with the hard skills, soft skills – defined as traits relating to one’s emotional IQ, as well as communication ability, teamwork, and professionalism  –  are needed as well. "A participatory system means people also assume responsibility for the challenges," Neilan said.

Program activities include:

  • designing a business plan for the center to increase revenue,
  • building ties with local farmers and agribusiness producers throughout Armenia,
  • organizing a summer camp for American college students, and
  • helping to build a wine academy — a venture that could also help develop tourism.

"Our charge is to make the program self-sustaining," said Hammett, who directs Innovation for Agricultural Training and Education, a larger program of which Innovate-Armenia is a part.

Virginia Tech will lead the program, partnering with three other universities: Penn State, the University of Florida, and Tuskegee University.

The award is supplemental funding that builds on efforts that the Innovation program has made to develop the institutional capacity of agricultural universities in the developing world. Both of the programs are managed by the Office of International Research, Education, and Development.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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