Research for Workforce Development in Controlled Environment Ag: What Makes a Successful Indoor Farm Manager?

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As indoor agriculture has grown, finding, training, and retaining a skilled workforce has emerged as an important challenge to the industry. A unique combination of plant production, tech troubleshooting, and innovation is needed among employees managing these operations.

What are the critical skill sets, and how can we create a larger pipeline of individuals trained in these skills so that they can contribute to CEA business success?

At Cornell University, a group led by Professor Anu Rangarajan (Director, Small Farms Program) seeks to provide answers as part of a National Science Foundation-funded research project on CEA Viability in Metro Areas.

Rangarajan’s team has conducted extensive research to date in order to understand the workforce needs of the hydroponics industry, including greenhouses and indoor vertical farms—and the research continues.

With the long-term goal of creating robust curricula for training CEA employees in mind, a team from Cornell University conducted many in-depth interviews with professional CEA growers in 2018 and 2019.

The team then organized a workshop, in consultation with The Ohio State and Agritecture Consulting, that invited a focus group of CEA operations managers to model in detail the diverse activities that they perform on the job.

The resulting chart is a detailed, peer-reviewed list of duties (responsibilities) and tasks (activities, skills) that describe the work of the expert Indoor Farm Operations Manager.

The chart is currently being reviewed by peer growers worldwide, who are asked to verify how important each skill is, and how frequently it is conducted.

Based on this input, the Indoor Farm Operations Manager chart will be used as a starting point for prioritizing future CEA training modules. After that, a deeper analysis of key individual skills will be conducted in order to translate the foundational research into a teachable vocational curriculum.

Right now, however, Rangarajan’s team is actively seeking more responses to the verification survey.

“We need your help,” she emphasizes, speaking to professional CEA growers. “We want to learn your priorities for a CEA curriculum that will enhance the skills of current or future employees.”

The survey takes approximately thirty minutes to complete and can be completely anonymously. CEA growers who complete the survey will also be provided with an Amazon gift card for $25 as a token of appreciation, although they must provide their names and email addresses in order to receive this gift.

To take the survey, register here. The Cornell team will send a survey link directly from Qualtrics.

As Rangarajan notes, “Grower input will help us prioritize the core education and training relevant to indoor agriculture,” helping provide the industry with the skilled workforce it will need to scale.

For more information about this study regarding the future of the CEA workforce, please contact project lead Anu Rangarajan (ar47@cornell.edu) or research associate Wythe Marschall (wmarschall@fas.harvard.edu).

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