Illinois Community Colleges are Breaking New Ground in Off-Farm Careers

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Off-Farm Ag Careers

A student works with biofuels equipment in the hands-on lab at Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg.

Even among the fields of rural southern Illinois, agriculture professor Aaron Heinzmann teaches students who have no desire to farm.

“We are getting these students because they recognize there are lots of opportunities in agriculture right now,” says Heinzmann, who teaches at Kaskaskia College in Centralia.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that between 2010 and 2015 more jobs than qualified graduates will exist in agricultural and food systems, renewable energy and the environment. Throughout Illinois, community colleges respond to meet agriculture’s modern-day job demands. They offer nontraditional agriculture programs that give students hands-on training for a variety of off-farm careers.

The Burgeoning Biofuels Sector

Last year, a Missouri biofuels facility called Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg with immediate interest to hire graduates. Just one problem: Its biofuels program only started in spring 2014, so students had yet to complete it.

Educators at the community college see great potential for its new biofuels manufacturing technology program. The two-year associate degree prepares graduates for employment in biodiesel production, wet and dry ethanol production, waste and water treatment, process control and chemical processing.

“I think a lot of people isolate employment to an ethanol facility, but I think that is misleading,” says Lauri White, dean of career, technical and health education. “People can go into lots of different manufacturing or industry facilities and transfer this information with them.”

Those places may include a pharmaceutical research facility, agricultural seed company and more.

Grants through the Department of Labor and Illinois Green Economy Network jump-started the college’s biofuels program. They also supplied $250,000 in laboratory equipment, says Chuck Young, program coordinator.

An ethanol trainer allows fermentation and distillation in a lab setting. A biodiesel trainer makes 26 gallons of the fuel. Other lab equipment performs quality tests. In addition, an ethanol production simulator generates scenarios that require critical thinking and application of classroom instruction.

The college offers online access for most of the program’s course load, and campus attendance is required for laboratory work. Students confident in math and science who desire a lucrative career should consider the biofuels program. Median wages in this industry calculate to $52,000 annually, Young says.

Off-Farm Ag Careers

A student climbs a 65-foot structure as part of the wind turbine technician program at Danville Area Community College.

Wind Energy on the Rise

The wind turbine technician program at Danville Area Community College started in response to the growing job demand stimulated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. With a doubling of wind energy expected by 2018, instructors anticipate another surge in student enrollment.

“For someone entering the program right now, it is perfect timing,” says Greg Hansbraugh, alternative energy instructor at the college. “Companies are calling me looking for people ready to work.”

The associate degree program brings in many of those calls as it provides the hands-on training employers prefer. The industry-derived curriculum focuses on worksite safety, mechanical devices, and hydraulic and electrical systems. Students graduate prepared for jobs to construct, maintain or repair wind turbines.

While on campus, students train with specialized harnesses and helmets. They practice rescue exercises. They gain hands-on experience with a 65-foot climbing structure and access to a 40-meter blade. And they also work in the guts of a 51-ton nacelle, the unit that sits atop a wind tower. The nacelle houses the key components of the wind turbine, including the generator, gearbox and break assembly.

Hansbraugh himself graduated from the school’s wind energy program and worked on eight wind farms before returning as a college instructor. The jobs pay well with an average $18 to $22 per hour starting wage, he says. This career field best suits sharp, adventurous individuals willing to travel or relocate. Comfort with heights is a bonus, though modern safety equipment minimizes fears.

Off-Farm Ag Careers

Expanding for Education

Agriculture student enrollment at Kaskaskia College has increased 60 percent in the last decade. Needless to say, the program outgrew its space years ago.

“We have averaged No. 1 in growth across the whole institution,” says Heinzmann. “We run just about 100 students through various small classrooms, so we’re very cramped for space.”

Relief has arrived. As of fall 2014, the college’s agriculture students gain access to a renovated, former state animal disease laboratory. The old lab, which operated at the edge of campus, shuttered due to state budget cuts. The building measures 48,000 square feet – 40 times larger than the 1,200 square feet previously dedicated to agriculture programs.

Renovated and renamed the Kaskaskia College Agricultural Education Center, the building includes larger classrooms and ample space for various laboratories. The building also provides offices, and student meeting and study spaces.

The building’s grand opening comes on the heels of the college’s decision to repackage its associate degree pathways in agriculture. Those now include animal science, plant and soil science, ag business, dairy science and horticulture science. The college also offers agriculture transfer programs.

The expansion poises the college’s agriculture program for future growth. Meanwhile, greater capacity for hands-on training improves the learning environment for students and potential recruits.

“We want you to get a real, comprehensive education with lots of good experiences – both in and outside of the classroom,” Heinzmann says.

Off-Farm Ag Careers

Wind technology instructor Greg Hansbraugh trains students on a nacelle miniature simulator. The nacelle houses the generator and other important components of a wind turbine.

Scholarship Support

As a Farm Bureau member, you, your spouse or children may be eligible for college scholarships from your county Farm Bureau or the Illinois Agricultural Association Foundation, the charitable arm of the Illinois Farm Bureau. Statewide, they award more than $500,000 in tuition assistance each year to students studying in an agriculture-related field. Awards range from $500 to $7,500 and support an array of traditional and nontraditional agriculture career paths. For more information, contact your county Farm Bureau or visit iaafoundation.org/scholarships.

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