ANNAPOLIS – Almost half of agricultural businesses in the Chesapeake area employing at least 10 workers are struggling to fill job vacancies, a new study shows.
The two-year study by the Governor’s Workforce Investment Board, surveyed 65 businesses in the Susquehanna area, upper and lower Eastern Shore regions and Southern Maryland.
Initial results were released to members of the Maryland Agricultural Commission, who met Wednesday.
After hearing the results, some commission members urged the investment board to examine the role of education and barriers to hiring that prevent Maryland farms from achieving full employment.
“We’ve got to have kids who come back to the farm,” said commission member Martha Clark. “If we don’t, we might as well build houses.”
Almost all of the 48 percent of businesses that reported problems with job vacancies said labor shortages negatively impacted business. According to the study, job shortages increase operating costs, drive importation of foreign labor, stress farm families and reduce the likelihood of farm expansion.
A formal report on the study, which also will examine other industries, is to be published this fall on the board’s web site, www.mdworkforce.com.
“Hard to find” workers included supervisors, farm laborers, truck drivers and veterinarians, the study revealed.
Certain high-skill occupations, such as veterinary medicine, may not be producing enough agricultural workers because of perceptions of agricultural work.
Jacob Casper, a veterinarian who attended the meeting, said many young veterinarians do not focus on farm animals because they can make more money caring for pets.
One way to generate more farm veterinarians, Casper said, would be to persuade veterinarians still studying to enter agriculture.
“The farm community should reach out to the kids in the veterinary schools,” he said.
The need to improve education’s emphasis on agriculture was echoed by several commission members, including Chairman Henry Passi.
“Agriculture is viewed, in my view, very negatively” among those training Maryland’s future workforce, Passi said.
“There aren’t enough educational institutions available to teach kids to drive loaders,” Clark said. “We need a tractor-driving school.”
Jim Ferrant, lead coordinator in career and technology education systems for Maryland’s Department of Education, could not be reached for comment on the department’s efforts to improve agricultural education.
“Connecting education with the work force is an ongoing endeavor,” said Pat Cassidy, deputy director of the investment board that produced the study.
Clark, commission education representative, said young people cited low pay as a reason to avoid agricultural jobs in Maryland. Yet, workers are needed in both low- and high-paying jobs, she said.
In 2000, hired workers in Maryland received $8.51 per hour on average, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics quoted in a University of Maryland report. The Maryland report also found that 8 percent of the total farm workforce in 2001 was made up of temporary foreign farm workers.
The costs for securing labor, Clark said, including housing, paperwork and liability insurance, often are too high for small farms.