The changing skillset of the agricultural workforce

Teresa Fox

A recent report from the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) on ‘The Future of Regional Jobs’ noted that the culture of regional work across the country is changing rapidly and a plan to meet demand is needed now. In April, AFI General Manager Katie McRobert attended the RAI Regions Rising conference in Canberra, where she was a panellist discussing the future of regional jobs. In this Hindsight article, we look back at past AFI publications on the agricultural workforce and delve further into future skillsets and changing perceptions of regional or agricultural careers.

Upskilling and education

The Autumn 2017 Farm Policy Journal covered the topic of ‘The Changing Agricultural Workforce’. In this issue, Richard Health discussed the evolution of job requirements in the agricultural industry. 

Amalgamation of smaller family-owned operations into larger farming enterprises has resulted in the number of farm employees now outnumbering farm owners and managers. This trend means owners and managers need to upskill and become organisers rather than conductors of day-to-day operational tasks. 

Skillsets incorporating increased knowledge in areas of technology, environment and management will be increasingly demanded in agriculture. This may include skills in data analysis, working with robots, understanding legislation, interpreting ecosystem requirements and human resource management. 

Data from the RAI continues to show that young adults in regional Australia are twice as likely (28%) to leave school before completing grade 12 compared to those in metro areas (14%) (1). However, the trend of the rising median age of farmers was discussed in an Autumn 2017 Farm Policy Journal article by Professor James Pratley. Along with other considerations, Professor Pratley outlined the possibility of an increased emphasis on society to complete high school education and continue onto tertiary education.

Attracting workers 

Along with encouraging increased education levels of regional workers, attracting city workers to regional areas will be a future challenge for agricultural employers.

In an occasional paper for the AFI entitled ‘Graduate Destinations in Agriculture’, Professor Pratley and Nigel Crawley found that approximately half of the agricultural graduates surveyed were subsequently employed in regional areas. Graduates who studied with an institution located in a regional area were more likely to gain employment in a rural area than those who studied in capital cities. 

The paper noted that those responsible for planning, education and training should consider these trends when planning for future industry pathways and ensure tertiary education courses are providing the appropriate skillsets to graduates. 

Although encouraging students to study at regional and rural institutes is important, filling regional jobs also requires targeting individuals located in metropolitan areas. The RAI report states that perceptions of poor infrastructure, services and amenities in rural towns can deter people from seeking work outside capital cities. 

While responses to these issues often require significant investment by government and local council, RAI notes that regional communities can influence labour markets and improve learning systems. To improve perceptions of rural life and attract more workers, agricultural workers may be required to aid in community initiatives and utilise skills such as discussion facilitation, negotiation and communication in the future. 

Digital technology

The AFI research in the Accelerating Precision Agriculture to Decision Agriculture report highlights the likelihood that technology will replace some labour-intensive jobs, e.g. carcase splitting, fruit picking and operating tractors. However, digital technology will create new jobs and skill requirements, such as software engineers and robotic technicians. As the job roles in the industry change, so too will the skills required to have a successful career in agriculture. 

It was only several decades ago that proficient typing skills were considered a rare asset in job candidates, where nowadays this skillset is assumed by most employers. What will our assumed skillset in several decades look like? Will it be assumed that candidates have robotic programming or website design as part of their proficiency toolkit?

Changing perceptions

Work is being done by the industry on promoting a career in agriculture, such as the recent video from Queensland Farmers’ Federation on ‘Your Career in Agriculture’ (2)  and the work of Little Brick Pastoral (3). With the divide between the country and city still evident in mainstream media, promotional work such as this will be valuable in attracting people to the industry and to regional work. 

However, it is not just the perceptions of others which need to change to increase the regional workforce. As Ms McRobert and many others noted at the Regions Rising conference, the way we talk about our industry and frame conversations is critical. If we want people to become excited about agriculture and recognise career opportunities away from cities, we need to avoid playing off old stereotypes. We need to change our language from “I’m just a farmer” to “I’m a farmer and I’m proud of it”. 

Recent media coverage on drought, floods and animal rights activism is not aiding in the mission to improve perceptions of an agricultural profession or regional life. These negative events will continue to be broadcast in news and social media platforms and are likely to increase in frequency as we encounter climate change impacts and health food trends. 

To address this, workers in the agricultural industry may see increased demand for skillsets in public relations, marketing, promotional activities and public speaking.