JournalQuantitativeTeaching & Learning in Undergraduate Academic ProgramsVol. 69

Knowledge, Skills, and Competencies Needed by Students with Training in Agricultural and Environmental Practices as Perceived by Local Leaders: A Delphi Study

By January 6, 2019June 12th, 2020No Comments

Sarah Sapp, Perry, FL

Andrew C. Thoron, University of Florida, athoron@ufl.edu

Eric D. Rubenstein, University of Georgia, erubenstein@uga.edu

PDF Available

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to examine the knowledge, skills, and competencies needed by high school students with coursework in agricultural and environmental practices as perceived by educators and industry members. This study utilized a true Delphi technique in order to obtain the perceptions of the respondents. Respondents indicated 122 items that were important for students to possess with coursework in this area. The top 83 items were reported based upon panel members’ perceived importance of these items. There were three major themes or categories of importance identified by the panel members, which include: life/leadership skills, core subject area knowledge, and competence in production agriculture knowledge/practices. The respondents on the panel also indicated the importance of incorporating local conditions and practices into the curriculum. This panel was specific to the needs of Hendry County in Florida thus limiting the transferability of the results beyond this region. However, some responses may be utilized beyond this population and this study provides a methodological framework for similar studies in other regions. 

Introduction 

Agricultural production has been predicted to increase 70% by 2050 to feed the world’s growing population (Krogstad, 2012). An increase in production will require an increase in the skilled agricultural workforce who can meet the demands of a growing population. However, the United States continues to have a shortage of skilled agricultural workers (Gasperini, 2011). Setting aside political barriers to acquiring an agricultural workforce, the main concern is the level of skill needed by workers. A skilled workforce is necessary for agriculture to sustain and increase current levels of production (Rivera & Alex, 2009). Within agricultural education a need exists to develop students who are skilled in agricultural content and competencies, while preparing all students to be agricultural literate citizens who contribute to society (Roberts & Ball, 2009). More specifically, a skilled agricultural worker is someone who is knowledgeable of agricultural content and skills and has the ability to utilize critical thinking and decision making in an agricultural environment (National Research Council, 2009). Further, Roberts (1957) posited that “the controlling purpose of such education [agricultural education] shall be to fit for useful employment … [those] who have entered upon or who are preparing to enter upon the work of the farm or the farm home” (p. 615). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012), employers expect to lose up to three percent of their skilled workers by 2022. The need for a skilled workforce is evident based upon the need to increase the food supply and sustain a growing population. Meeting the demands for a skilled workforce will require training and education. Teachers, employers, and other professionals will be responsible for providing training and education in skilled agricultural jobs in order to prepare job seekers for the workforce (Roberts & Ball, 2009). 

Rivera and Alex (2008) suggested that the need for employees in agriculture can be satisfied through the development of a knowledgeable workforce that is educated and trained based upon the needs of the location. Training and education will be necessary in order to supply a skilled workforce; however, as stated by Rivera and Alex (2008) the knowledge and skill required by workers is entirely dependent upon the needs of the geographic area. In order to prepare an adequate workforce, training and education will need to be tailored to the region and commodity area. Phipps, Osborne, Dyer, and Ball (2008) stated that educational program design should “include the workforce demands of the community, the general interests and needs of the students, and opportunities and trends in the area” (p. 113). The authors also noted the importance of collecting information from local industry experts and stakeholders. 

In addition to training and education based upon the needs of the area, training will also need to be provided at all academic levels. Based upon the 2011 Agribusiness Jobs Report (AgrowKnowledge & AgCareers.com, 2009) 58% of job openings posted on the AgCareers.com website required a bachelor’s degree, 11% required an Associate’s Degree, and 13% required a High School Diploma. The variation of training and education at multiple academic levels will allow for the development of a workforce that is prepared with the various skill sets necessary to sustain the agricultural industry. 

Literature Review 

Based on the needs of this study, literature was reviewed that employed the Delphi method as a means of obtaining responses to questions concerning curriculum development or employment competencies in secondary school-based agricultural education. Additional literature was reviewed that focused on curriculum development or revision for purposes of employment in the agricultural industry. Finally, other research was investigated that illustrated high school graduates current level of preparation to enter the workforce. 

Akers, Vaughn, and Haygood (2003) sought to determine what topics should be taught in a high school agricultural communications course and what competencies students should possess. The researchers utilized the Delphi method to obtain answers to the previous questions. The Delphi panel consisted of 75 members—33 high school teaching experts, 21 agricultural industry leaders, and 21 university faculty that taught agricultural communications courses. These panel members were selected for three reasons. First, all individuals that would be affected by the program should be included during the curriculum planning process (e.g., teachers, employers, and employees) (Akers et al., 2003). The second reason for utilizing the Delphi was addressed by Finch and Crunkilton (1999) who stated that curriculum should reflect the needs of the workforce, thus validating the need for agricultural industry leaders to participate in the panel (Akers et al., 2003). Lastly, Sprecker (1996) noted technology and job requirements in agricultural communications have changed frequently, thus the information should be evaluated by experts in the field. Therefore, university faculty members in agricultural communications were selected to be on the panel (Akers et al., 2003). The panel developed 262 responses concerning the topics that should be included in a high school agricultural communications course. Results were categorized into 11 topic areas. Of the responses, the panel agreed or strongly agreed that 91 competencies should be included in a high school agricultural communications course. 

Slusher, Robinson, and Edwards (2011) examined if the current agricultural education curriculum was meeting the needs of the animal science industry. In order to do this, the researchers sought out the opinions of Oklahoma animal industry experts regarding the competencies needed by high school graduates interested in entry level positions. Researchers chose to use a modified Delphi method in order to obtain more detailed, rigorous information from experts and stakeholders in the livestock industry. Additionally, this method was used because of the ability to elicit anonymous, controlled feedback. Researchers also used careful consideration when selecting individuals to participate in the study. Participants were selected with assistance from faculty in the animal science department at Oklahoma State University based on the likelihood to hire entry-level employees and with regard to the animal specialization (Slusher, Robinson, & Edwards, 2011). 

The Delphi study (Slusher, Robinson, & Edwards, 2011) to determine animal science industry needs yielded 48 technical competency statements. These statements indicated that students needed skills in the following areas: business, marketing, and data management; health and nutrition; operation and maintenance of tools and machinery; reproduction and genetics; animal handling/animal husbandry; policies and food safety; animal selection and evaluation; and production agriculture. Specific skills in which all Delphi participants strongly agreed high school graduates should possess were: “use of basic math skills,” “execute general farm safety practices,” and “understand animal needs” (Slusher, Robinson, & Edwards, 2011, p. 100). 

Scanlon, Bruening, and Cordero (1996) conducted four focus groups to determine agriculture curriculum modifications being made in Pennsylvania to help develop the knowledge and skills of students seeking employment in the agricultural industry. Focus group members were purposively selected for their knowledge of agribusiness and agriculture industry workforce needs. Members of the focus groups identified several areas for modification of the agriculture curriculum. Those modifications included: the inclusion of business related skills, human relations skills, critical/analytical thinking, problem solving, decision making, understanding of the business cycle, knowledge of quality control, communication skills (both written and spoken), and team work skills (Scanlon, Bruening, & Cordero, 1996). 

In a report from The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, employers were asked to identify the very basic skills that high school graduates should have to be successful in the workforce. Employers identified reading comprehension, English language, writing in English, mathematics and foreign language as the five most important basic skills areas that students should possess (Casner-Lotto, 2006). Additionally, employers were asked to identify the most important applied skills for job success. Professionalism/work ethic, teamwork/collaboration, oral communications, ethics/social responsibility, and critical thinking/problem solving were identified by respondents (Casner-Lotto, 2006). The aforementioned skills are termed soft skills. Rutherford, Stedman, Felton, Wingenbach, and Harlin (2004) posited that soft skills are essential to be successful in today’s workforce. Furthermore, Bancino and Zevalkink (2007) stated that the development of soft skills, to complement technical skills, increases personal productivity, collaboration, and synergy. Regardless of importance, employers have cited that many high school graduates do not possess these skills (Casner-Lotto, 2006). 

When developing curriculum, Roberts and Ball (2009) posited that content- and context-based curriculum should be developed within agricultural education programs. By engaging students in content- and context-based curriculum, agriculture teachers can assist in the development of a skilled agricultural workforce and prepare learners to be agriculturally literate. Finally, school-based agricultural education programs provide students a context to apply the content knowledge that they have gained in other academic courses to real-world situations and environments (Roberts & Ball, 2009). 

Curriculum development provides benefits for students as well as teachers. Teachers who engage in action research regarding curriculum development become more self-confident in their ability to develop new curriculum and to increases their professional confidence. Engagement in science curriculum development assisted teachers in increasing the utilization of science in their classroom instruction. Therefore, engaging teachers in curriculum development improves the quality of the educational learning environment and assists in the development of engaging hands-on lessons for students (Bencze & Hodson, 1999). Based on the aforementioned findings, this study sought to determine the necessary knowledge and skills for a specific sector of agriculture in a south Florida community. This study focused on the knowledge and skill necessary for high school graduates. In addition, this study created a process to be replicated in other communities where skilled agricultural workforce development is necessary. 

Conceptual Framework 

This study is part of the Hendry County Sustainable Biofuels Research Center. The purpose of the Center is to create a partnership between the University of Florida and Southwestern State College, and Intelligentsia International, Inc. to foster the development of a sustainable biofuels industry in south Florida. In order to do this, one goal of the center was to develop a program that provides education and training in sustainable biofuels and agriculture (Burleson, Rubenstein, Thoron, & Hanlon, 2012). 

Therefore, an educational continuum was developed that focused on education and training at both the secondary school and post-secondary school levels (Figure 1). The overarching purpose of the continuum was to develop an agricultural workforce based on community needs. As stated in the introduction, educational program design should be based upon the workforce needs of the community (Phipps et al., 2008). Therefore, community needs should be identified by county stakeholders within the given segments of the model. 

Figure 1. Educational Continuum developed to meet the skilled workforce needs in South Florida as part of the Hendry County Sustainable Biofuels Center (Burleson et al., 2012). 

Once the community needs are identified, the agricultural industry within the defined geographical region should be described in order to determine the necessary steps toward meeting the identified needs. In this study, Hendry County is a traditional farming community; however, this traditional industry is struggling. There is a clearly established need for environmental restoration, resulting in a desire to utilize more sustainable farming methods for both food and energy. As previously described, Rivera and Alex (2008) illustrated the importance of basing education on the agricultural workforce needs of the community. Thus, prior to the study it was important to understand the state of the agricultural affairs in Hendry County.

Following an understanding of the current state of the agricultural industry, educational programs must be outlined in order to meet the community needs. At the secondary school level, a career academy should be developed that focuses on environmentally and economically sustainable food and fuel production. Additionally, teacher professional development must be provided. The goal is for students to obtain certification in this area with the opportunity for employment in the community upon graduation of high school or advancement to Southwestern State College/University of Florida.

The next element of the conceptual model was progression to post-secondary education. If students were seeking further education, the continuum provides for educational opportunities at the community college and university levels. Students can enroll in Southwestern State College to further explore opportunities in the biofuels industry to ultimately obtain an associate degree in the field. Furthermore, a student can gain experience through an internship with a local farm or the University of Florida Southwest Florida Research and Education Center to develop further knowledge in agricultural and environmental practices. Following the completion of an associate degree, students choose to enter the workforce, or obtain their bachelor’s degree from a program at the University of Florida. 

At the University of Florida students can further develop knowledge and skills in the field which will be applicable to their home community (Burleson et al., 2012). The very nature of this continuum allows students to choose to participate in part or all components of the continuum. However, the ultimate goal is that students receive education and training in agricultural and environmental practices, directly applicable to their home community. This continuum helps meet the demand for a more skilled workforce (Burleson et al., 2012). 

While this continuum presents the overall goals of the educational programs through the Sustainable Biofuels Research Center, this study focused solely on the development of the secondary school education portion of the continuum and the curricular components that should be included within secondary school education programs focused in sustainable and biofuels. Thus, the findings and conclusions of this study were tailored to the needs of educating a skilled agricultural workforce with only a high school diploma. 

Purpose and Objective 

The purpose of this study was to describe the consensus of south Florida agricultural industry members and educator regarding the competencies needed by high school graduates for entry-level employment in agricultural and environmental practices. Therefore, the objective of this Delphi study was to identify the knowledge, skills, and competencies necessary for entry-level employment of high school graduates in the agricultural industry in Hendry County. As a means of accomplishing this, answers to the following question were sought from each panelist: 

  • If you were to hire a high school graduate with training/education in agricultural and environmental practices, what are the knowledge, skills, and competencies you would want the student to have? 

The research objective that guided this study was: 

  1. Identify the knowledge, skills, and competencies needed of high-school graduates in agricultural and environmental practices. 

Methods 

The Delphi method was developed in the fifties by RAND Corporation as a means of obtaining a reliable consensus about the opinions of experts within a field of study (van Zolingen & Klaassen, 2003; Okoli & Pawlowski, 2004). The Delphi method was widely used and applied in the sixties and seventies, particularly in the fields of science and technology. Today, the Delphi method is an accepted research method that has been used across many disciplines in order to predict future events or generate new programs or policies (van Zolingen & Klaassen, 2003; Okoli & Pawlowski, 2004). 

The Delphi method has been used in agriculture education for various reasons. Often, the Delphi approach has been used to identify perceptions of problems in the field of agricultural education (Connors, 1998; Dyer, Breja, & Ball, 2010; Mundt & Connors, 1999). Other studies have used the Delphi approach to identify needs of pre-service or practicing agriculture teachers (Rayfield & Croom, 2010; Saucier, McKim, & Tummons, 2012). Still others have used the Delphi method to identify the skills and competencies to be developed from a program in a particular area (Akers et al., 2003; Scanlon et al., 1996; Slusher et al., 2011). This study was intended to determine the knowledge, skills, and competencies necessary for high school graduates with coursework in agricultural and environmental practices, as perceived by educators, industry, and environmental experts. 

For this study, a face-to-face Delphi was chosen and conducted with experts in a select region of Florida. In this study, a state extension specialist, a regional education specialist, and the investigators utilized Okoli and Pawlowski’s (2004) five-step process for selection of an expert panel. The five steps were: 

Step 1: Prepare a knowledge resource nomination worksheet (KRNW), 

Step 2: Populating the KRNW with names, 

Step 3: First-round contacts – nominations for additional experts, 

Step 4: Ranking experts by qualifications, [and] 

Step 5: Inviting experts to the study (pp. 20-23). 

The expert panelists (N = 10) were purposefully selected on the following criteria: expertise in educational practices in the public schools; expertise of agricultural education in the public schools; industry knowledge in the agricultural industry; environmental expertise in the region; and knowledge of issues interfacing agriculture, natural resources, and environmental stewardship. According to Okoli and Pawlowski (2004), face-to-face Delphi panels should contain 10 to 18 experts who have an in-depth comprehension of the issue. The expert panelists were selected purposively in cooperation with a state extension specialist, a regional education specialist, and the investigators. The purposive selection resulted in ten panel members, five members who were current agricultural education or science education teachers and five members who were employed in the agricultural and natural resources industry. According to Bencze and Hodson (1999), teachers should be included in curriculum development to reduce teachers’ use of Harlen and Holroyd’s (1997) coping strategies when teaching science such as: reduce science emphasis in lessons, concentrate on the teacher’s strengths in science, use textbooks and kits as curriculum, and avoid advanced hands-on laboratory activities. 

The researchers chose a lead question to begin the panel discussion in collaboration with an educational expert with experience in the Delphi approach. The Delphi panel was conducted by a trained discussion leader and recorder to transcribe the concepts presented by the panel. A trained faculty investigator oversaw the process and provided an overview of the process to panel members during an introduction to the study. 

The Delphi process consisted of three rounds that were conducted over a one-day period-of-time. During the first round the question: “If you were to hire a high school graduate with training/education in agricultural and environmental practices, what are the knowledge, skills, and competencies you would want the student to have?” was asked to the expert panel. Panel members were asked to respond to this question with a brainstorm of ideas based upon their expertise. As ideas were presented each was recorded on the board and in an Excel spreadsheet. During this round, members were asked not to give value to a response (i.e. state that it was correct or incorrect), but rather to utilize the responses of others to continue to brainstorm ideas. This process was conducted by the lead investigator to ensure that value was not given to any responses shared during round one. Round one lasted one hour and thirty minutes. At the end of the round, panel members came up with 100 items and rated each item on a scale of 1 to 5 (1= Not Needed; 2 = Optional; 3 = Somewhat Important; 4 = Very Important; 5 = Essential). Following round one, the panelists were given a 20 minute break and were asked to not discuss their thoughts with the other panelists until the second round began. 

At the conclusion of round one, scores for each item were averaged and compiled into one document. Round two began with the distribution of scores to each panel member. This initial ranking provided all panelists with a baseline ranking of the importance of each item. After reviewing the responses, panel members were asked to revisit the question posed in round one to determine if there were additional ideas which still needed to be added, combined, or deleted. The additional ideas that were added, deleted, or combined were developed through discussion between the panelists. The lead investigator ensured that discussion remained on topic and that the ideas shared were clear. When ideas were no longer being presented, the round ended. This round lasted approximately one hour, resulting in 22 additional items and no deletions or combination of items. Following round two, the panelists were given a 60-minute break for lunch and were asked to not discuss their thoughts with the other panelists until the final round began. 

During the final round panel members evaluated the entire list of 122 items. Panelists discussed the relative importance of each item and considered adding, deleting, or combining items that were overlapping. The lead investigator kept the panel of experts on topic and if a consensus was not reached on combining items each item was left as a stand-alone item. Additionally, terms were identified by investigators that needed more clarification or further discussion by panel members, thus those terms were presented in order to garner the complete ideas and opinions of the panelists. A total of 134 items were agreed upon to remain on the list. At the conclusion of the final round, panel members again rated each of the 134 items using the same scale as in the first round (1= Not Needed; 2 = Optional; 3 = Somewhat Important; 4 = Very Important; 5 = Essential). 

During this process, expert panelists rated the items at the end of each round. Responses were averaged for each item, during each rating. The ratings from the final round were utilized to determine the final recommendation for the agricultural and environmental practices curriculum. It was determined a priori that an item scoring “4” or higher would be included in the final recommendation of knowledge, skills, and competencies necessary for the agricultural and environmental practices curriculum. 

Findings 

Each round sought to develop a list of knowledge, skills, and competencies for students seeking employment in agricultural and environmental practices, using the open ended question “If you were to hire a high school graduate with training/education in agricultural and environmental practices, what are the knowledge, skills, and competencies you would want the student to have?” In round one, 100 items were identified. Round two yielded 22 additional items. The final round was used for combining overlapping terms and clarifying ideas previously presented. In total, 134 items were obtained. 

A consensus was agreed upon that “work ethic,” “responsibility,” “teamwork and cooperation with others,” “follows instruction,” “accountability to own work,” and “required internship experiences” were essential to be taught in courses that provide training and education in agricultural and environmental practices. Additionally, 31 of the items were rated as either “essential” or “very important” by all 10 panel members. Responses that had a mean equivalent to “essential” or “very important” (i.e., “5” or “4” respectively) were reported. 

Out of the 83 items reported above, 20 items were life or leadership related skills (e.g., “work ethic,” “responsibility,” “open-minded,” etc.) (Table 1). 

Table 1
Descriptive Statistics of Life/Leadership Skill Characteristics for All Delphi Panel Responses
Knowledge/Skill/CompetencyMSDE or VI %
1. Work ethic5.00100%
2. Responsibility5.00100%
3. Teamwork and cooperation with others5.00100%
4. Follows instruction5.00100%
5. Accountability to own work5.00100%
6. Dedication4.9.32100%
7. Communication skills4.9.32100%
8. Time management4.8.42100%
9. Task-oriented4.8.42100%
10. Life skills4.7.48100%
11. Ability to document their own work4.7.48100%
12. Computer skills4.7.48100%
13. Problem solving ability/adaptable4.7.48100%
14. Open-minded4.5.53100%
15. Critical thinking ability4.5.7190% 
16. Evaluate the credibility of information4.4.7090%
17. Accepting of change4.4.7090%
18. Community service requirement4.3.6790%
19. Recording/reporting daily operations4.6780%
20. Question business as usual (e.g., develop innovations,think outside the box)4.8270%
Note. E=essential, VI=very important.

There was also an emphasis on having knowledge and understanding in core subject areas, including mathematics, sciences, and writing (Table 2). 

Table 2
Descriptive Statistics of Agricultural Knowledge/Skills Characteristics for All Delphi Panel Responses 
Knowledge/Skill/CompetencyMSDE or VI %
1. Required internship experience.00 100%
2. Personal and environmental lab/field safety training4.8.42 100%
3. Knowledge from education farm tours4.8.42 100%
4. Knowledge of basic agriculture terms4.8.42 100%
5. Understanding of water use4.7.48 100%
6. Hands-on experience4.6.70 100%
7. Knowledge of food safety principles4.6.52 100%
8. Irrigation4.6.52 100%
9. Equipment safety4.5.97 90% 
10. Ability to read pesticide labels4.5.71 90% 
11. Water conservation4.5.71 90% 
12. Waste management4.5.53 100%
13. Understanding of local conditions4.5.53 100%
14. Plant nutrition4.5.71 90% 
15. Soil conservation4.5.71 90% 
16. Ability to read and understand technical manuals4.5.53 100%
17. Obtain certifications in agriculture 4.5.53 100%
18. Ability to read/understand material safety data sheet4.4.70 90% 
19. Water quality4.4.52 100%
20. Ability to feed plants/animals correctly4.4.70 90% 
21. Understand how agriculture fits into the world4.4.84 80% 
22. Ability to operate basic agriculture equipment4.3.95 90% 
23. Environmentally safe pest control practices4.3.67 90% 
24. Basic understanding of crop growth4.3.82 80% 
25. Basic understanding of plant biology4.3.82 80% 
26. Water resource management4.3.67 90% 
27. Animal nutrition4.3.67 90% 
28. Individual student project4.3.82 80% 
29. Knowledge of basic agriculture equipment repair and maintenance4.2.92 90% 
30. Pesticide licensing and safety knowledge4.21.0380% 
31. Basic understanding of soil management4.2.79 80% 
32. Ability to manage local conditions4.2.79 80% 
33. Planting experience4.2.63 90% 
34. Ability to operate equipment4.2.7980%
35. Ethical animal treatment4.2.63 90% 
36. Understanding of environmental rules/regulations4.2.42 100%
37. Obtain occupational licenses/permits4.2.63 90% 
38. Basic understanding of fertilizer usage4.1.57 90% 
39. Harvest experience4.1.57 90% 
40. Knowledge of IPM (Integrated Pest Management)4.1.74 80% 
41. Ability to conduct a Risk/Benefit analysis of agriculture practices4.1 .88 70% 
42. Technical competency in field.67 80% 
43. Understand the results of a tissue/soil analysis.82 70% 
44. Understand the business of agriculture.82 70% 
Note. E=essential, VI=very important.

Lastly, the ability to perform basic agriculture tasks were emphasized (Table 3). 

Table 3
Descriptive Statistics of Core Subject Area Knowledge Characteristics for All Delphi Panel Responses
Knowledge/Skill/CompetencyMSDE or VI %
1. Writing skills4.8.42100%
2. Understanding of the scientific method4.6.7090% 
3. Ability to measure accurately4.6.52100%
4. Knowledge in core subject areas (math, biology, sciences)4.5.7190% 
5. Ability to interpret collected data4.5.7190% 
6. Ability to explain (written) what you have observed4.5.53100%
7. Ability to convert fractions to decimals4.5.8580% 
8. Understanding of how to research for information4.5.7190% 
9. Interpreting data4.5.7190% 
10. Use of proper measurement tools4.4.7090% 
11. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) related knowledge4.4.8480% 
12. Conversion of measurements4.3.6790% 
13. Application/transferability of scientific principles4.2.6390% 
14. Understanding that hypothesis doesn’t have to be correct4.1.7480% 
15. Knowledge of the metric system4.1.8870% 
16. Creating/interpreting graphs4.1.9980% 
17. Developing testable hypotheses.9480% 
18. Understand what makes something reproducible via thescientific method.8270% 
Note. E=essential, VI=very important.

Conclusions 

The responses of panelists yielded three major themes when discussing the knowledge, skills, and competencies necessary for high school graduates with coursework in agricultural and environmental practices. Those three themes were Life/Leadership Skills, Agriculture Knowledge/Skills, and Core Subject Area Knowledge. 

Life and leadership skills were reported as important skills for high school graduates with coursework in agricultural and environmental practices. Identified characteristics that fit within this category include: work ethic; responsibility; teamwork and cooperation with others; follows instruction; accountability to own work; dedication; communication skills; time management; task-oriented; life skills; ability to document own work; problem solving ability/adaptable; open-minded; critical thinking ability; acceptance of change; and question business as usual. 

Life and leadership skills identified by the Delphi panelists (Table 1) can be termed soft skills. As mentioned previously, soft skills are necessary for success and personal productivity in the workplace (Bancino & Zevalkink, 2007; Rutherford et al., 2004). These skills identified by the panelists align directly with a survey of employers who indicated that skills such as professionalism/work ethic, teamwork/collaboration, oral communications, ethics/social responsibility, and critical thinking/problem solving are essential in the workplace (Casner-Lotto, 2006). Furthermore, in the Delphi study conducted by Akers et al. (2003) panelists also indicated the need for professional skills such as listening skills, working in teams, work ethic, and professionalism. This research validates the necessity of life/leadership skills that panel members presented when discussing the necessary skills needed by high school graduates with coursework in agricultural and environmental practices. 

The next overarching theme present in the responses was core subject area knowledge (Table 2). Identified characteristics that fit within this field include: writing skills; understanding of scientific method; ability to measure accurately; knowledge in core subject areas (math, biology, sciences); ability to convert fractions to decimals; STEM related knowledge, conversion of measurements; algebra; application/transferability of scientific principles; knowledge of the metric system; and creating/interpreting graphs. 

The emphasis on the necessity of this skill would lead one to understand the importance of core subject area knowledge, but to also question if high school graduates possess enough knowledge and skill in this area. Previous research has indicated that high school graduates are deficient in this area (Casner-Lotto, 2006). Employers reported that 42.2% of new employees with a high school diploma were deficient in overall preparation for the position, citing specific deficiencies in writing, knowledge of mathematics, and knowledge of science (Casner-Lotto, 2006). Furthermore, in the Delphi study conducted by Slusher et al. (2011) panel members indicated that students needed basic math skills, the ability to record data, and basic accounting skills. Additionally, the Delphi study conducted by Akers et al. (2003) yielded core subject area needs in writing, including grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Both the reports of employers and the results of previous Delphi studies evaluating curriculum focused on employment have indicated the necessity of core subject area skills for obtaining employment in the agricultural and natural resources industries. This supports the need identified by the panel for high school graduates with coursework in agricultural and environmental practices. 

Lastly, competence in production agriculture knowledge and practices was a theme identified based on the panel responses (Table 3). Thirty-six competencies in agriculture knowledge were identified. The five highest rated competencies were: personal and environmental lab/field safety training; knowledge of basic agriculture terms; understanding of water use; knowledge of food safety principles; and irrigation. Other thematic areas that were also rated in high regard include: equipment usage (including safety and maintenance), water and waste management; plant and animal care, and soil management. 

Responses from the panel indicate a wide variety of abilities and knowledge that students should be able to possess. High school graduates with coursework and training in these areas would help meet the demand for skilled workers in agriculture (Rivera & Alex, 2008). The responses presented are only representative of the needs of this south Florida community. As illustrated by Phipps et al. (2008), education in agriculture should be based upon the needs of the community. Delphi panel members indicated the need for students to be able to “understand local conditions” and have the “ability [to] manage local conditions.” Input from the panel members aligns directly with the literature in agricultural education which suggests the need for education in agriculture to be representative of the agriculture in the community. However, it is interesting to note that some competencies identified by this Delphi panel aligned with responses from the Slusher et al. (2011) Delphi study. Panelists from both studies indicated the importance of training in safety, animal health, machinery operation, and understanding the business of agriculture. 

The results of this study contribute greatly to the previously presented conceptual framework and the success of the Hendry County Sustainable Biofuels Research Center. First and foremost, the results of this study will be used to begin curriculum development for agricultural and environmental practices at the secondary school level. This curriculum will be tailored to the needs of this community, which was the overarching goal of this study. Once curriculum is developed high school graduates will be prepared to enter the workforce as skilled agricultural workers with training in agricultural and environmental practices. However, graduates have several options once completing this coursework, which includes entry into the workforce or pursuit of a higher education. Regardless of a student’s choice beyond high school graduation, the knowledge, skills, and competencies developed should serve students well, and contribute to the overall skilled agricultural workforce and the success of the Hendry County Sustainable Biofuels Research Center. 

Recommendations and Implications 

The results of this study have provided knowledge regarding the important knowledge, skills, and competencies that students with coursework in agricultural and environmental practices should possess to be hired in this industry in south Florida. The life and leadership skills, as well as core subject area skills, are practices that can be implemented regardless of geographic location since research has indicated the necessity of these competencies. It is recommended that life and leadership skills, as well as core subject area skills, be incorporated into agriculture courses, particularly to help prepare students for employment. 

These findings, particularly the agricultural competencies, may only be applicable to the population studied, and more specifically to the geographic area in which this study was conducted. However, it is important to note that some agricultural competencies were similar between two Delphi studies that were not conducted in the same region. This may indicate the necessity to teach some agricultural competencies regardless of geographic region. It is recommended that these results be utilized to develop courses, course outlines, and curriculum for Hendry County District Schools in Florida. It is also recommended that similar studies be conducted in other areas to help determine the knowledge, skills, and competencies that students should develop when a new curriculum is being developed. 

It is recommended that the methodology used in this study serve as a framework for future studies in agricultural education concerning curriculum development. Based on the number of competencies yielded from this Delphi panel, it is recommended that the face-to-face Delphi expert panel be utilized whenever possible, in order to obtain a high level of data to encompass comprehensive characteristics. Thus, allowing for more thoughtful panelist responses that address the issue under investigation. 

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