Future workforce captures Roundtable attention

Richard Heath

Since its inception, the Australian Farm Institute has convened the Australian Agriculture Roundtable conference to discuss topical agricultural policy issues. The 2017 Roundtable addressed decentralisation, the future agricultural workforce, energy and corporate investment in agriculture.

All sessions generated a large amount of audience discussion, however the future workforce session generated the greatest amount of feedback for the Institute, both in terms of commentary on the themes raised by the conference speakers and also suggestions for future conference and research topics.

The session speakers talked about the many indicators pointing towards a significant shift in the capabilities that will be required in the future agricultural workforce. These included the digitisation of agriculture, changes in farm business structures, and demographic shifts in both farm and non-farm populations.

Dione Howard, an AWI Young Farming Champion from the Art4Agriculture program, opened the session with a call to arms for young people entering agriculture. She was followed by Dr Kelly Manton-Pearce, chair of the Grower Group Alliance, speaking about the role that grower groups can play in making agriculture an attractive destination for prospective employees; Pip Job, talking about the Young Farmers Business Network, an initiative she is leading within the NSW DPI; Andrew Skinner talking about how agriculture became his new-found passion and advice for others attempting the transition from other industries; and Mick Hay from Rimfire Resources, talking about how effectively the tertiary training sector integrates with the agricultural community and agribusiness to understand requirements and supply appropriate graduates.

All speakers mentioned how much the roles within agricultural businesses are changing, and how much of a challenge it is for training and education providers to keep pace. However, delegate feedback suggested that there was still plenty of ground left uncovered, particularly around how employers accessed appropriately skilled people and the pathways available for semi-skilled workers.

The issue of semi-skilled workers in an increasingly technology-enabled workplace was raised by several conference participants as a major issue that has so far received little attention. Many employment pathways in agriculture have traditionally been non-formal and have required little training. The introduction of digital value chains, and the specialised skill sets required for digital agriculture, are requiring farm businesses to source employees who have minimum standards of digital proficiency. Conference participants indicated that this was a significant challenge and that new training opportunities needed to be developed to upskill the traditional semi-skilled agricultural workforce.

Employees who entered the workforce straight from high school were included in this category, and it was suggested that there was still not a coordinated whole-of-agriculture effort in attempting to both influence curriculum and provide information about career pathways in agriculture for high school students.

Difficulty with attracting and retaining skilled workers to agriculture is a perennial issue that generated discussion and feedback from Roundtable delegates. The feeling was that this issue is going to accelerate as the skills required in modern, technologically-enabled farms and agribusinesses become more specialised and diverse. It was proposed that a modern farm business manager would be more likely to require a business management degree than agricultural science training, but that they would need to be able to access a pool of highly capable agricultural scientists and technicians.

Feedback suggested that lack of knowledge of where to find labour, both skilled and semi-skilled, discouraged some farm businesses from expanding or taking on innovative technology.

The lack of a capable and available agricultural workforce is certainly not a new issue for Australian agriculture. Based on the vigorous nature of the discussion at the 2017 Australian Agriculture Roundtable and subsequent feedback to the AFI, it is however an issue that is very much unresolved – and one that is anticipated to become worse as new technology and business models become widespread in Australian farm businesses.

Image:  Feral Arts