Recruitment

Recruitment: Overcoming the agriculture skills shortage

John Harvey, Managing Director of RIRDC, 28/07/2017

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In this comment piece, John Harvey, Managing Director of Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, says if we’re going to overcome agriculture’s persistent skills shortage, people need to know it’s not just a sector for farmers….


EVIDENCE from government organisations, industry groups, academics and almost anyone who has ever tried to find highly-skilled candidates for agriculture job vacancies, is that the Australian agriculture sector faces a near critical skills shortage.

While agriculture is the biggest employer in rural and regional Australia, employing around 300,000 people directly and more than 1.6 million people across the supply chain; workforce capacity looms as the sector’s most significant issue.

As the sector faces the challenge of feeding a rapidly growing global population and increasing technical complexity, the composition of jobs and available career paths have changed considerably in recent times and now the opportunities are abundant.

For the past 10 years, there have consistently been many more jobs available in agriculture than there are qualified candidates. University graduates finishing agriculture-related degrees can expect to have full-time employment secured before they’ve completed their degree. Indeed, according to the latest research from Charles Sturt University’s Professor Jim Pratley there are upwards of five jobs for each graduate in the current market.

It needs to be said that most of these graduates (and indeed many of the people employed in the agriculture sector) are not farmers. The Australian agriculture industry is about the whole value chain, from on-farm production through to transport, manufacturing, marketing, finance, innovation, services and more.

“We have to bust the myth that ‘agriculture’ equals ‘farming’.”

We have to bust the myth that agriculture equals farming. You don’t have to be a farmer to work in agriculture, you don’t have to have an agricultural background or qualification to work in agriculture, and you don’t necessarily have to live in a rural area to be part of the sector.

Really, it’s any job that is involved in the production of food, feed and fibre or that supports that production and helps get those products to market. It’s everything from a graphic designer working on packaging concepts for supermarket rice cakes to engineers building robots to monitor fruit trees to the train driver delivering wheat to port and much more. 

The future of our sector depends not only on more farmers but on more people coming to work in the sector in an off-farm capacity. We used to think that to secure agriculture’s future we had to keep young people on the land and working on farms. Now we know we must not only retain our young farmers but attract people from other industries and other backgrounds.

Gender bias disappearing

It’s also not a male-dominated sector anymore. Enrolment data from university agriculture courses shows women have outnumbered men (albeit marginally) since 2003.

RIRDC’s Horizon Scholarship program, which supports young people passionate about agriculture and helps them become part of the sector’s next generation of leaders, has been awarded to more women than men again this year. And even more significantly it’s no longer a scholarship for rural university students but is attracting young people from metropolitan areas who are passionate about agriculture despite not being from a farming background.

To guarantee the future workforce of our sector we have to do a better job of promoting the strength and diversity of Australian agriculture and its abundant career opportunities.

Managing director of specialist agribusiness recruitment company, Rimfire Resources, Mick Hay, is passionate about raising the profile of the sector as exciting, global, diverse, geographically spread and on the cutting edge of technology. 

“When I speak to high school or university students who are studying agriculture or related subjects and degrees, I tell them they’ve absolutely made the right decision investing in a career in agribusiness,” he says.

“External perceptions of the sector have certainly improved, but there’s still more to be done. One of our sector’s main challenges is that people don’t really understand the full length, breadth, and depth of opportunities in agribusiness, and that’s where there’s room for us all to tell more of our success stories,” Mr Hay says.  

He is absolutely right, because now is not the time for the sector to take its foot off the pedal. Yes, progress is being made but if the sector is to grow as expected, make the productivity gains required to feed the world and keep abreast of new technology we need more people to come across to agriculture.

“We must ‘maintain the rage’ about attracting talent to agriculture”

As Professor Pratley says, we must ‘maintain the rage’ about attracting talent to agriculture if we are going to be able to meet the needs of an expanding industry.

Given we are competing against a myriad of other sectors for the new skills our industry needs, like IT and engineering, more work has to be done to make agriculture stand out and attract talented people. The future workforce of our industries is not guaranteed without more action to improve the image of the sector, moving it away from the traditional farmer icon, and promoting agriculture as a truly fulfilling career choice.

UNE’s Farming Futures event exposes students to possibilities in ag

With job vacancies now outnumbering applicants in some sectors, agricultural graduates are in the box seat, and there’s no better place for students to explore the range of possibilities than at this year’s UNE Farming Futures event.

Dr Janelle Wilkes, course coordinator of agriculture at UNE, said careers in agriculture are now more diverse than ever. Her recent survey of UNE agricultural graduates revealed that not only were 97 percent employed; they were in agribusiness, agronomy, education, animal nutrition and research roles.

“There is growing appreciation of agricultural degrees and the transferable skills that our UNE graduates develop,” Dr Wilkes said. “Our graduates have practical skills making them work ready, with many going  on to further study to enhance their employment prospects. Over half of all agricultural students at UNE are now female, challenging traditional stereotypes. And according to Dr Emma Doyle, Lecturer in the School of Environmental and Rural Science, gender barriers have been broken down.

“Technology and various on-farm improvements mean that the physical side of farm work is no longer an issue for women,” she said. “Besides, a career in agriculture these days can involve anything from being an agribank manager to working in marketing, management or economics, or even as a researcher like me. At Farming Futures, all students, but especially female students can see that there are no limitations to what they can do.”

Farming Futures, to be held on Friday 28 July, showcases the range of careers available across our agricultural industries. Organised entirely by current UNE agricultural students, it features a careers fair, presentations and laboratory sessions, and an industry dinner.

Chairperson Kelly Gorter, who is in the final year of a Bachelor of Animal Science degree, said 30 companies will be represented at this year’s event, which attracts hundreds of secondary school and university students from across the State. For secondary students, it’s a chance to learn about the degrees UNE offers, future career options and to talk to tertiary students about their experiences. UNE’s tertiary students enjoy the opportunity to develop some important skills in hosting the event, and invaluable networking.

“Many of the companies represented offer internships, so it’s a great chance for tertiary students to build useful connections for future work experience and possibly even secure a job,” Ms Gortner said. “Future Farmers gives all students the chance to speak to people in roles they might be considering and for potential employers to meet the bright minds that are the future of agriculture.”

The event’s industry dinner on Friday evening will feature guest speakers Prue and David Bondfield and a charity auction in support of BlazeAid. The Bondfields were among the first to breed Charolais cattle in Australia and operate one of the country’s largest stud beef operations – Palgrove – at Dalveen, Queensland. They were The Weekly Times/Coles Australian Farmers of the Year in 2016 and 2015 Kondinin/ABC Rural Livestock Producers of the Year.

 

Sources: RIRDC, UNE.

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