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Cultivating Agribusiness Talent in China

Editor’s note:  Reporter Du Xiu of Global Entrepreneur interviewed Dean Steven C. Currall in early May at the China-Europe International Business School-UNESCO-CHIC, Inc. 2nd China International Agribusiness Forum 2013 in Beijing. This article first appeared in Chinese in the May 20 issue of Global Entrepreneur magazine.

The overall competence of China’s agriculture is still below the global average in spite of decades of development. What do you see as a solution to this?

Steven Currall: In the future development of the Chinese agricultural industry, establishing talent, leadership training and other issues cannot be ignored. Agribusiness in China is facing a severe shortage of highly skilled workers. For instance, in Beijing’s Xin Fa Di—a large scale state-run agricultural wholesale market—it is difficult to find qualified workers. The An Hui private agricultural company also has a hard time recruiting recent graduates to join. In recent years, China’s agricultural universities have trained a large number of Ph.D. and master’s degree graduates, but most will not consider agribusiness as their first career option. They would prefer to work as civil servants or in the financial services industry.

What are the main reasons for this problem?

SC – In my opinion, there are three main reasons that have caused this problem:  First is that there is a disconnect between the content of university education and the operations of agribusiness. Secondly, universities have not been able to effectively transition their research results into products and services, which enterprises need to innovate in this field. Lastly, compared to other industries, the agriculture industry does not appear as attractive to many prospective employees.

How do we solve these problems?

SC - I believe we need to first work on the education mechanisms at Chinese universities. For example, we need to change the curricula to better train graduates on how to efficiently operate agribusinesses. The goal should be to follow the model similar to the Western countries like the United Kingdom and the United States and bring top managers and professors together to create a cohesive curriculum. In China, universities and businesses seem to have an invisible barrier between them. Most professors do not like to give business people a voice in the creation of curricula. China’s agribusiness must be proactive in getting involved with educating talent at the universities.

There also needs to be a stronger university alumni network. One the most important factors of Silicon Valley’s success was Stanford University’s strong alumni network. In China, these kinds of alumni networks are developing and growing, especially with the encouragement of business schools. This is a critical foundation to help lessen the gap between the universities and business people. A strong alumni network is also beneficial in helping them establish a group with a higher level of trust between universities and business. Agribusinesses can learn lessons from the Silicon Valley model.

What do agribusiness firms need to do to adapt?

SC - With regards to enterprises, there are three areas that can be changed. The first is to actively promote the unique value and appeal of agricultural business. On the outside, they are not very glamorous—this problem was faced by both Chinese and U.S. agriculture during their developing stages. If Chinese agribusiness can succeed in recruiting talented individuals and create shared values among them and their agribusiness employers, this would facilitate even more effective recruitment in the future. 

Second, agribusiness enterprises must establish a higher profile brand and reputation. Traditionally, people have perceived agriculture as not lucrative.  Although there are many high-paying agribusiness enterprises, many people are not familiar with them. As a result, these businesses struggle to attract the talent that they need.

Third, enterprises must support basic scientific research and professional training.  Those efforts must be incorporated into their long-term business plans. Most Chinese agricultural entrepreneurs have higher education degrees. As they are successful, those entrepreneurs must give back to those schools in some form, say, through philanthropic financial gifts to the universities. By giving back to those universities, they establish a higher reputation for their alma mater, which further enhances the prestige of the entrepreneurs’ university degrees.

Of course, the government must also provide help through their policies. The U.S. provides tax benefits to individuals and companies that donate funds to universities. If China can promote this policy, it will help strengthen agricultural universities. But we must also consider that although U.S. agricultural industry has had many successful experiences, China has unique development patterns and complexities. Therefore, the American model cannot simply be transplanted into China.

Like leaders in other industries, a qualified agribusiness person must have technological skills including agricultural expertise, finance, accounting, marketing skills, and human resource management. In the early stages of one’s career, technical capabilities are crucial; as one moves higher up the corporate ladder, conceptual and behavioral skills like strategic planning, networking, negotiation, and teamwork become more important.

In addition to establishing business talent and leadership, the modernization of government policies and removal of obstacles to technological development are equally as crucial to the future of Chinese agribusiness.