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From FFA to DNA: Businesses view convention as more than a gathering of corn growers

January 16, 2006

Don't call it the Future Farmers of America. That went out of style with pastel suits and parachute pants. The organization is now known as the FFA. And it's no longer just a gathering of crop jockeys.

The change in moniker partly illustrates why business leaders are so excited for the first of at least seven annual conventions the organization will stage in the Circle City starting in late October.

"FFA is a premier, if not the premier, youth organization in our country," said Ted McKinney, leader of industry relations and government and public affairs for Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences. "Never mind that it's ag-oriented."

In other words, the 45,000-plus high school students in blue corduroy jackets that will fill the city's hotels aren't just coming here to learn how to milk cows and drive combines.

They're the future leaders in industries ranging from agriculture to life sciences and pharmaceuticals. And they're studying complex procedures like DNA extraction. They're the employees the state wants to attract as it morphs from a manufacturing economy to one based more on science and technology.

That's why companies such as Dow and City Securities Corp. will roll out red carpets all over town for convention attendees.

"The challenge is to impress them enough so they want to go to school and live and work here afterward," said Pat O'Connor, an executive vice president at City Securities, an investment and insurance firm.

O'Connor has already put out the word for students interested in finance to stop by his office and meet his company's executives. He's also signed his employer up for a seven-year sponsorship and volunteered with the local organizing committee's finance group.

Dow will have buses fueled up and waiting at the front doors of the Indiana Convention Center to whisk students to its local laboratories. Mc-Kinney hopes several thousand accept the invitation to learn about their latest research.

They aren't the only two companies with open doors. I n addition to the onsite career fair, FFA officials estimate about a hundred employers and universities will host students the week of the convention.

"There's an opportunity for universities like Purdue and the life sciences community to showcase what it has for these folks," said Bill Stagg, an FFA s p o ke s m a n . "There is an opportunity to impress them with the companies and educational outlets that exist in Indiana."

While neither Mc-Kinney nor O'Connor plans to hire on the spot, both said it's important that firms start building relationships with FFA students as soon as possible.

"We'd love to recruit these people," McKinney said. "It may be as employees, but if it's not, we at least want to familiarize them with our company because in the future they'll be the employees, customers, policymakers, consumers and stakeholders in the field."

The organization's strong record of providing leadership training attracts employers like Dow and City Securities. Past FFA members include Nobel Prize winners, U.S. senators and representatives, CEOs, judges and governors.

Each of the organization's 500,000 student members must learn public speaking as well as how to conduct business meetings and organize committees. The students who trek to Indianapolis have all distinguished themselves at the local level, prompting McKinney to call them the "crème de la crème."

"We hope the experience they have in Indianapolis will plant the seed that Indiana is a great place to live and raise a family and make a significant contribution to the community," said Doug Loudenslager, FFA's chief operating officer.

Loudenslager thinks it is. That's why he and his contemporaries moved the FFA National Center from Alexandria, Va., to Indianapolis in 1998-10 years after it officially changed its name to the National FFA Organization.

Students will be all ears when they arrive in the Circle City. While only a third come from farming backgrounds-a third come from the suburbs and a third come from urban areas-many of them are leaving home on their own for the first time.

"I cannot emphasize enough how impressionable these kids are," McKinney said. He still recalls attending his first convention as a student in Kansas City.

"It's a great experience for students," said Travis Jett, FFA's student president, who didn't realize the wealth of opportunities open for agriculture students until he attended his first state convention in eighth grade. "It's easy for students in agriculture to be focused on what they have in their homes or communities. But as you walk into the convention, it opens your eyes to see how many diverse companies are in agriculture. It's a great perspective."

Jett, for one, has already looked outside the box. He plans to attend law school after finishing his education at Oklahoma State University. But don't worry, he won't stray too far from his roots. He plans to practice ag-law on his family's ranch in Oklahoma.
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