New agri-food career coordinator bridging the gap


The state’s first agri-food career coordinator is connecting students, their teachers and school administrators to career possibilities they don’t know exist.

Shanell Rainey-Jacob, herself, is a perfect example.

Despite 13 years in workforce development, program management and curriculum development in the Chicago area, Rainey-Jacob told FarmWeek she never heard from an ag company looking for employees. “I was surprised to hear about (an employee) deficit,” she added.

Now with the Illinois Agri-Food Alliance (ILAFA), Rainey-Jacob, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, asked friends and family who are educators what they know about agriculture and learned she wasn’t only the one who didn’t realize there are endless opportunities.

“I decided to come to the ag space,” said Rainey-Jacob, who describes her job as an ag industry liaison with students and job seekers. “I want to bridge the gap between industry and students and let them (students) know what careers are available. ... It’s a barrier. They’re not educated about jobs in agriculture.”

Recently, ILAFA launched Agnitor, a new digital platform to connect agricultural and ag- and food-related industry professionals with students and teachers for virtual discussions about their careers. ILAFA is partnering with Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education on Agnitor’s launch.

Illinois Farm Bureau is a founding member of the ILAFA.

Rainey-Jacob will use Agnitor to connect students across the state with professionals who work in many fields related to agriculture, including government, academia, non-profit organizations, foundations and businesses. “Under the agriculture umbrella, there is an opportunity to use those skills,” she tells students.

The career coordinator has already participated in some virtual career chats, one at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences. She was planning another at the Dwayne Andreas Ag Academy in Decatur.

During these chats, Rainey-Jacob urges the students to be “active listeners.” After the industry professional speaks, Rainey-Jacob asks the students questions about what they’ve just heard and questions that they have.

However, the virtual chat can’t be a one-and-done activity, the career coordinator cautioned. The students will need to receive information multiple times. “This can’t be the last time,” she noted.

To make inroads, the agriculture industry needs to build relationships with school administrators and teachers to show interest, Rainey-Jacob advised. Educators “are tired of listening to programs that are pop up and fly by night,” she added.

For instance, consider that a school may lack a projector or the technology to have a virtual chat, Rainey-Jacob noted. The ag industry “has to put skin in the game, has to put manpower and money behind it,” including effort to diversify the workforce and make a workplace “a safe space” for all employees, she continued. “We have to show we care and want a relationship.”

Once an ag company has built a relationship with a school and its students, “even though culturally it doesn’t seem a safe space,” students hear “the company is ready to receive you,” Rainey-Jacob said. She also advises students “don’t be afraid to pave the way” for others.

Currently, Rainey-Jacob is compiling people across the ag industry, including all types of farmers, who would be willing to conduct a virtual career chat with students. A classroom presentation could take from 15 to 30 minutes maximum. Interested professionals may email information about their career and their background to Rainey-Jacob at

As a pilot program, “the possibilities are endless,” Rainey-Jacob said.


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