Research Professor of Agriculture in the Charles Sturt School of Agricultural, Environmental and Veterinary Sciences and Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation Jim Pratley believes the increasing shortfall in the agricultural workforce needs to be addressed now, and it’s not the sole responsibility of the government to develop this resource.
What are the opportunities in ag?
Over the last 15 years or so the opportunities in agriculture and horticulture have been promoted well.
For example, it is no secret that there are at least four professional jobs for each agricultural graduate. Most of these positions are off-farm and roughly 40 per cent are in the cities.
The variety of jobs requires a range of expertise – there is something for everyone. The positions are well paid, even the casual jobs. Projections indicate that there will be more jobs, not fewer.
Other projections suggest that job numbers across the economy will also be increasing, which gives rise to a looming workforce shortage on the horizon. This is a sign that the agricultural industries, particularly horticulture, should read the tea leaves because the market opportunities for their outputs are likely to increase markedly. But will they have an adequate workforce?
Addressing the shortfall of the agricultural workforce before it’s too late
It will be too late to address the increasing shortfall in the agricultural workforce in the near future. It should be addressed now so that the workforce is there at a critical time.
What then are the agricultural industries doing about it?
There is a long history of belief by the agricultural sector that it is the government’s role to provide the workforce. We continue to see this in play, for example, through the over-hyped agriculture visa and one week’s extra leave for public servants to work on-farm.
The National Agricultural Workforce Strategy (2020) commented that the pandemic highlighted how vulnerable agricultural production is, at all stages, to workforce shortages.
A recent article highlighted how COVID-19 has exposed Australia’s dependence on low-skilled workers as a pillar for our agricultural sector – warning that there is a looming war for manual and low-skilled workers.
This article also pointed to the 40-year projections of the Intergenerational Report (2021), that the ratio of working-age Australians to those over 65 years declines from 4 to 2.7 due to the population ageing. This trend is also expected in regions such as Europe, Japan, Korea, Singapore and China.
Competition for this labour will then become even more fierce in the intervening times.
A new workforce vision
While the government initiatives may help in the short-term, they are not, and cannot be, a workforce vision for the longer-term.
In reality, many of these manual jobs are unlikely to be around in five or 10 years as mechanisation, robotics and other technologies are likely to be developed sufficiently to replace manual employment for those jobs in agriculture, horticulture and livestock businesses.
The agriculture sector will need new skills and expertise in the technology age. The National Agricultural Workforce Strategy described it in these terms: “that poorly trained people mean poor technological advancement, low productivity and low profits. Conversely, modern training is required for advanced technology, high productivity and profits in the 21st Century”.
What then is the strategic workforce vision for agriculture?
Over the last decade, there has been strong development in career promotion in the primary industries. Examples include:
- The AgVision promotions, initiated at Junee High School and adopted for the Sydney area by the Royal Agricultural Society NSW.
- Career Harvest, which is a website that focuses on careers in agriculture generated by the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture and is now being managed and upgraded by the Primary Industries Education Foundation Australia.
- AgVenture, an initiative of the National Farmers Federation for National Agriculture Day.
There is strong collaboration and cooperation in these endeavours and the availability of career information for the agricultural sector is better than before.
Creating stronger links between school leavers and burgeoning ag careers
The real question that needs to be asked is: how do we ensure the link occurs between the school leaver and the courses they need to do to enter the careers that are now described?
One might argue that industries in general and companies need to invest in the process. For too long, companies and other businesses in the ag sector have expected that their new employees will be delivered to them fully trained and free of charge. Those days are effectively over if the tea leaves are inspected.
Interestingly, The National Workforce Strategy highlighted that the mining industry invests in the education system through its Tertiary Education Council, in order to guarantee a supply of mining graduates. As the competition grows for a share of the workforce in the near-to-medium-term, the agricultural sector needs to consider a similar strategy.
Well-regarded teachers in this sector indicate that scholarships work. Students like to be wanted and such an incentive can change a study direction. When that happens, ‘mates’ sometimes change their direction too.
Anecdotes indicate that there are students who want to do agriculture at university but can’t afford the relocation and living-away-from-home expenses. A scholarship that provides the foundation throughout their undergraduate studies can change a life.
We need the agricultural, horticultural, and livestock industries to invest in education and training as they will be beneficiaries of that investment. A zero investment, such as expecting governments to do the lifting, is likely to deliver a zero return - tea leaves don’t lie.
Charles Sturt working to ensure the future of the agricultural industry
Charles Sturt University has recently announced that it is establishing an Agriculture, Water and Environment Institute for research, and that researchers from Charles Sturt will lead the $3.6 million Next Generation Water Engineering and River Management Hub.
These projects are the latest in almost $40 million realised this year for research and partnerships in AWE which Charles Sturt leads or is involved in, including:
- The Southern NSW Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga
- The planned expansion of the AgriSciences Research and Business Park (AgriPark)