Roots still firmly in agriculture, but FFA branching out with new career building program
FFA, the venerable youth institution formerly known as Future Farmers of America, is breaking new ground in order to keep pace with changes in technology and non-traditional agriculture-related career opportunities.
Thanks to a $550,000 appropriation from the Illinois General Assembly that waived enrollment fees for agriculture students in Illinois schools, participation in FFA increased during 2022 from 24,000 to more than 39,000 high school and junior high students, according to the Illinois FFA Center. This means that more students will be able to gain valuable leadership experience through FFA that can serve as a stepping stone into the U.S. workforce, which is currently down by three to four million workers since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
SOE program could help bridge employment gap
A new FFA program, Supervised Occupational Experience (SOE), has been introduced to offer students the chance to participate in career-building skills and career exploration opportunities that connect, no matter how indirectly, to the agriculture industry. According to LeRoy High School agriculture teacher and FFA advisor Jason Perry, the idea behind SOE is to give students opportunities to learn future work skills and earn money while also benefiting their communities and the overall workforce.
“Many folks are familiar with FFA’s Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) program where students have either an entrepreneurial or placement record book and are working for somebody (in the agriculture industry). SOE is modeled after SAE, but it’s for students that don’t necessarily have strong agricultural ties and resources and are having a hard time finding jobs in those fields,” said Perry, whose LeRoy FFA chapter was founded in 1948 and currently boasts around 40 members.
“We’ve been looking for a couple of years for a way to allow those (non-farming) students to compete with the other students. By allowing SOEs to grow, we’re allowing those career development skills for more students.”
Areas of eligible employment for SOE students include Arts and Communication, Finance and Business, Health Science and Technology, Human and Public Services, Information Technology and Manufacturing, Engineering and Trades. The skills and knowledge gained through the SOE must be transferable to a specific agriculture career.
Examples could include employment as a diesel mechanic that does not work on farm machinery, a student who creates webpages or social media accounts for a non-agriculture company or organization, or employment in a retail store that does not handle agricultural products.
“We are recognizing that you can do things outside of agriculture that will prepare you for jobs in agriculture — many of these jobs overlap,” said Perry, who participated in a statewide committee charged with establishing the parameters of Illinois FFA’s SOE program. “Those skills will transfer to the agricultural field. The president of my hometown bank has his degree in ag business.”
The SOE program is still “in its infancy,” according to Perry, though one of his students did complete an SOE record book while working for the LeRoy School District Panther Care childcare service. Perry said he’s looking forward to introducing more of his students to FFA’s new SOE program in the coming years.
FFA focusing on career-readiness
At Dunlap High School District 323, FFA advisor Aaron Barrington leads around 55 students in the school’s FFA program, though only around 20 of the students are what Barrington calls “totally into all of the traditional FFA-type activities.” This is reflective of a not-so-new trend of more urban and non-farming students becoming more involved with the national youth leadership organization, which was founded in 1928 in Kansas City and now boasts over 735,000 student members in grades seven through 12. The students are part of more than 8,800 local FFA chapters throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Dunlap is an agricultural community, but we don’t have many members who are actually going home to farms everyday. Agriculture has changed a little bit since 1988 when I graduated high school and 1992 when I started here (at Dunlap),” said Barrington.
“Our state FFA leaders and the Illinois School Board have built a curriculum that really focuses on career readiness. Just today I was talking about pay and benefits and how to get into the workforce, and we discussed how (right now) opportunities are there more than at any other time that I’ve known. FFA is really leading the kids towards the ability to go out and get into the workforce.”
Barrington envisions high schools with FFA programs hosting “signing days” for FFA students who secure employment with local companies as a result, in part, of their FFA training and FFA programming — sort of like when notable athletes commit to colleges.
“Those kids who are going out into the workforce could be recognized for that as opposed to only the kids that are going off to four-year schools. Let’s acknowledge those who are going into a trade school or going right to work. FFA is right behind this movement,” he said.
As for the new SOE program, Barrington said it serves to encourage FFA members to take charge of their own destinies. The vocational program squares perfectly with a part of the FFA motto: Learning to Do, Doing to Learn, Earning to Live, Living to Serve. As with the FFA SAE program, participants will be able to compete at sectional, district and state levels for awards. The Supervised Occupational Award program will recognize students who have excelled in their SOE program during the annual FFA State Convention in Springfield.
“Even if you don’t get a section or district award, you still get a paycheck — and that’s an award you can hopefully get used to for the rest of your life,” said Barrington.
FFA mission: retain “heart” of program, move towards future
Mindy Bunselmeyer, executive director of the Illinois FFA Center in Springfield, said the $550,000 appropriation for FFA granted by the Illinois General Assembly makes Illinois a “fully affiliated” FFA state, meaning that every Illinois agriculture student automatically qualifies for free FFA membership.
“What this has done is remove any financial barrier that a school district would have for their students to be FFA members,” she said.
Though the opportunities the SOE program can provide should allow more urban and non-farming FFA students a chance to gain needed occupational skills, that concept is nothing new to the youth leadership and empowerment organization. According to Bunselmeyer, FFA has been about more than just “cows and plows” for many years.
“We continually work on the offerings we have to make sure they reflect changing industry expectations,” said Bunselmeyer. “With SOEs we have kids doing things that are outside of school that are not ag-related. They are working in small and large communities and keeping records on their experiences. We ask these students to tell us how what they are learning in agriculture classes applies to their work experience, and how will your SOE prepare you for a career in the ag industry.
“We don’t want to lose our backbone, our heart, which is agriculture. But we know we have students doing (jobs) that are outside of agriculture and want to support them for their accomplishments as well.”
Illinois Department of Agriculture Director Jerry Costello said the state appropriation waiving all Illinois FFA student fees has been continued as a line item in Gov. JB Pritzker’s proposed FY 2024 state budget.
“The continued appropriation of $550,000 ensures that the growth seen following last year’s investment will continue. From 24,000 FFA members to over 37,000 in just one year, I’m thrilled to see this continued investment in the Governor’s introduced budget,” Costello told WGLT-WCBU.
Updated: Total FFA enrollment in Illinois had increased to just under 39,000 as of March 2023, according to Bunselmeyer.