Future Technician Preparation (Agricultural and Bio Technologies)

Thus far, this FLATE Focus Future of Work Series has introduced overview connections of Future of Work issues in technology sectors heading used by the National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education program: advanced manufacturing technology, agricultural and bio-technologies, energy, environmental technology, information technology, micro & nano technologies, geospatial technology, and security technologies. At this point in our series that background introduction is now in place. It is time to go through the categories again with more depth in mind.

We will come back to advanced manufacturing specifically since it may be the magnet for all future of work issues related to technician preparation and use a new process technology that forces the discussion into the first two technology sectors listed above (advanced manufacturing technologies, agricultural and bio-tech) with the “instigator” being agriculture and bio-technology. The new process technology involves pulse power applications and this topic matches the Future of Work series for important reasons: although the application of pulse power is complicated it is being adopted by industry, the STEM concepts in this technology are advanced; the skills technicians will need cross several technician categories; and it is highly likely that faculty are not familiar with pulse power. However, although the topic could get a bit out of hand it will be constrained to the world of the technician with the intent of addressing two defining questions: how does pulse power technology influence the technical workforce and what do future technicians have to do to secure knowledge of and comfort level to work in this area.

First things first: what is pulsed power? The processing of large amounts of agricultural produces to produce a target product is the fundamental of agriculture in the modern world. Juices are an excellent way for people to enjoy the benefits from a fruit. The apples industry is just one example. The agriculture objective for this specific example would be to optimize the amount of juice that can be extracted from an apple. The application of a very high electric field to the apples for a very brief time period after their initial press greatly increases the amount of juice that is extracted during the subsequent processing step. This new technology, pulse power approach is being employed in European agriculture now for grapes and other fruits. There are companies manufacturing the equipment and other companies designing and installing pulse power protocols for “big-ag” to insert into their production streams.   

 Back to the starting questions: (i) How does pulse power technology influence the technical workforce? (ii) For readers of previous articles in this series, there was no expectation for instantaneous answers to these questions. The intent is to stay with our operating premise: "The work to do starts with you."! However, we need more “teeth” in your response.

The example presented is an actual new technology that is being inserted in the agricultural and biotechnologies sectors in the United States and is already established in the European Union.  Sectors that rely on technicians to operate and maintain their processes as well as chemically and biologically evaluate the product during and after its processing will have to adjust to a really “radical” new high-tech computer-driven process. In addition, it should be quite clear that this new technology requires knowledge and skills that cross the traditional and perhaps silo technician expectations of biotech technicians. This technology is not going away. It is expanding into every corner of agriculture.  Technician education and training will have to address preparing technicians to work with it. Does this mean that the programs that currently focus on the analysis techniques will have to expand their focus or will new programs or subprograms be introduced within the agriculture technician skill space?

It is much better if these questions are addressed now. This preparation with input from around the country is important for creating a well throughout planned approach! NSF-ATE is listening and can put its resources into action in respond to what it hears so now is the time to speak up and share your thoughts with specific suggestions. Think about the skills needed and the optimal time (place) to learn them. Contact us. Send your thoughts and questions: gilbert@usf.edu.  

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