Closing the Gap Between Students and SPA companies

Soil sensorization, data georeferencing, drone generated maps, satellite imagery, weed scouting, robotics, intelligent irrigation… Dealing with all these concepts and technologies is part of the routine of advanced agronomists, who employ them to understand – and react to – the naturally existing variability in the fields. Simultaneous with the advent of new digital ecosystems has been a growth of new technologies and insights across the cultivation cycle.

All the actors in the agri-industry believe that the best related with digital faming is yet to come. It is clear that innovations and trends based on big-data, machine learning and automation will continue to grow in the coming years: you only need to visit any of the many ag-tech demonstration events to see that there is great enthusiasm in this space. Hopefully, this will be translated into bringing innovative solutions to agriculture by the next generation of farmers, agri-business, and researchers. These technologies and learnings need to be organized, structured, modelled, and scheduled in order for their decision insights to be practically applied in the field.

As this sector matures, precision agriculture companies are requiring for expertise capable of demonstrating added value in their technologies and services so that they can differentiate themselves from their competitors. A number of these companies are creating specific ag-tech departments and are encountering a barrier in the difficulty of filling these new vacancies with specialized and trained professionals in these areas. This raises key questions that need to be addressed when it comes to reaching this new generation of precision farming professionals. If there is a disconnect at the university/young adult level and companies, the industry and education institutions has to deal with a gap that needs to be filled.

By its definition, precision agriculture combines the “old” and the “new” in a single discipline, which means that in the future workforce, two types of profiles with different approaches are currently being differentiated: on the one hand, young people interested in technology, the “techies”, who casually find in agriculture a field in which to seek innovative prestigious jobs. From this pool of young people, they are expected to develop IT departments, app and software development, etc.

On the other hand, other young students tend to develop a more conventional career as agricultural professional. With experience and in-depth agronomic know-how, because they have family businesses or greater contact with traditional agriculture, they are moderately or non-interested in technology or sometimes take their own digital path without success. This contrast between the profiles of the “new” and the “old” is worrying, as precision agriculture needs to attract both sides to bring them together at the centre – to close the proverbial “gap” – if continued and sustainable growth of this industry is to be achieved.

The question is, how do we close the “gap”?. Part of it will come in due time, as more jobs open up in this sector, the adoption of various technologies becomes more widespread, and the business side of the industry continues to grow in euros amounts and in number of companies. But it’s not just a matter of waiting for time to pass. This digital transformation in the agribusiness sector requires actors to understand concepts such as “open innovation” and “co-creation”, which will accelerate technological change. These concepts are key to building relationships between businesses and the wider community, meeting the needs of end users, sharing knowledge and resources, and creating win-win solutions.

Organizations need to make the next generation of students as passionate about the industry as their employees are. Our experience in researching with technological advances for agriculture has allowed us to identify the technologies that in our view will mark the new professional profiles that will be incorporated into the sector in the coming years. Companies are demanding qualified professionals with expertise in the use of ICTs, with agronomic knowledge and interest in cutting edge technologies. Young people who are not afraid to explore the latest technologies and seek their applicability in the field. In addition, companies consider as necessary transversal skills applicable to their teams, such as agile innovation strategies, rapid prototyping and customer-oriented projects, as well as the ability to work in multidisciplinary groups.

Although technologies change rapidly, there is a consensus that some of the common skills that digital agronomists of the future must have may be:

  • Ability to make effective agronomy recommendations attending spatial and temporal variations
  • General knowledge of Precision Agriculture commercial technology and new advances in farm equipment, robotics and electronics and its applicability
  • Ability to produce accurate digital maps of fields using spatial information from UAVs and satellites within specialized software
  • Ability to operate Precision Agriculture equipment (monitors, controllers, etc.)
  • Operational knowledge of applications to obtain and analyze agricultural field data, with an understanding on statistical standards (mean, standard deviation…)
  • Effective written and verbal communication skills within Precision Agriculture activities
  • Operational knowledge of basic business and accounting principles

The current absence of these profiles is what has motivated the SPARKLE project, in which in-depth research is carried out on what skills agricultural students should acquire in the coming years, as well as the design of new learning tools and methodologies to train professionals in the agrifood sector with advanced technological knowledge and business skills that can be combined with traditional agronomic knowledge.

Complementarily, innovative educational initiatives have emerged in recent months that aim to be the training tools for this new generation of agri-food professionals. These initiatives seek to respond to the need for universities and research centres to coordinate student training from a professional career perspective.

An example of this type of initiative is the master’s degree in “Digital Agriculture and Agrifood Innovation” that has been created by the University of Sevilla, in which, in addition to training in technological branches applied to agriculture, the focus has been placed on business domain. Close collaboration with the most important companies in the sector is fundamental. In this way, the student gets to know first-hand what profile companies like yours expect from the beginning of their training stage. In addition, it is offered the possibility that the companies are the ones that bet on the student, training him and following his evolution in this program to later incorporate him to their staff.

These opportunities and the interest they generate in potential students reveal that an industry-validated curriculum on Sustainable Precision Agriculture practices will be necessary to solve the challenges of agricultural production.  Now we are at a key and exciting time for the sector, and we are convinced that the union of all these initiatives is building an ecosystem with the potential to make agriculture sustainable, attractive to the labour market and profitable.