America’s workforce is changing and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is preparing students for the agricultural economy of tomorrow.

With a $500,000, five-year grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, a multi-institutional team that includes the college will participate in the AFRI Agricultural Workforce Training program that will help design educational resources to prepare the agriculture workforce for effective leadership in an increasingly diverse environment. The project team is comprised of members from Viriginia Tech Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education; Cornell Cooperative Extension; the Center for Cooperative Problem Solving; and Virginia Western Community College.

As part of the grant, the Agricultural Technology program’s core curriculum will be enhanced with collaborative leadership for sustained workplace success.

“The skills people need evolve,” said Eric Kaufman, the project director and a professor of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education. “Part of what we are doing is preparing someone so that they can fulfill required technical skills immediately while approaching it in a way that teaches a lifelong learning approach and enhances some of the skills that are going to be relevant regardless of a changing work environment.”

The Agricultural Technology program will also work closely with the Virginia Community College System to adapt and extend collaborative leadership curricula for use with the agriculture workforce training programs, and create reusable learning objects that allow the application of the collaborative leadership curricula in food and agricultural sciences programs at other community, junior, and technical colleges and institutes.

With the educational landscape shifting to more remote educational opportunities because of COVID-19, the delivery of these learning experiences is changing. The original plan for the program was to focus on virtual learning in years four and five.

Eric Kaufman

Eric Kaufman
Eric Kaufman

“There's a recognition of the possibilities that exist in a remote learning environment,” Kaufman said. “We’re going to create meaningful learning experiences in this environment that can be adapted to other learning environments as time goes on.”

The team will collaborate with institutions that are focused on short-term career readiness with the overarching goal of providing support to these institutions.

“We're willing to share knowledge and resources, and we're willing to partner and collaborate so that everyone benefits so we can improve across the board,” Kaufman said.

The resources won’t be limited to just knowledge and competencies, Kaufman said, but will also focus on problem-solving and entrepreneurial spirit.

“Sometimes, a new employee wants to be told what needs to be done, but the employer wants an employee that’s engaged with problem-solving and is proactive,” Kaufman said. “An employee needs to be engaged in problem-solving while looking for opportunities to enhance the work that’s being done.”

Another aspect of problem-solving that the grant will support is workplace conflict.

“There's a lot of diversity in the workplace and, in some cases, people may not be used to working with people that are different from them and who may approach problem-solving differently. We're looking at ways to help them be better prepared for that environment.”

Because of the AFRI Ag Workforce Training program, employers will benefit from a workforce effectively trained in evidence-based practices of collaborative leadership designed to tackle any challenges arise.

-       Written by Max Esterhuizen

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