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WORKFORCE has emerged as one of agriculture’s biggest constraints as employers across the supply chain struggle to staff their operations and reach full production.
The subject was one of the biggest talking points at this week’s peak lotfeeding conference in Brisbane, BeefEx, with several speakers and delegates addressing it.
While identifying the problem is the easy part, solving it seems to be more difficult. ACC’s Anthony Lee has been pushing for agriculture to be part of education and well-known processor Terry Nolan used his platform at BeefEx to call for a change in language towards workforce.
“The beef industry has a people problem, not a labour problem. I would really like to see a change of language on that because talking about people as ‘labour’ dehumanises them,” Mr Nolan said.
Mr Nolan’s sentiment was similar to Charles Sturt University professor Jim Pratley, who recently addressed a Food Agility virtual seminar series – taking a deep dive into the problem.
Prof Pratley highlighted five main causes of the shortage:
- Rural urban divide
- Indigenous people
- Loss of political power
Urban population increasing
Prof Pratley said the growing divide between Australia’s urban and rural populations was one of the most obvious parts of the problem.
“If you go back to the end of World War II, the urban population and the rural population were pretty close together, in terms in numbers,” he said.
“When the populations were close together, there was a lot more connection to agriculture. The further we go along in time, the greater the disconnection.”
Slow to embrace women
While agriculture’s female workforce has been growing in recent years, Prof Pratley used university statistics to say the industry had taken a long time to catch up with the rest of the country.
“Prior to 1970, no females were allowed in ag colleges and no females were allowed in agricultural high schools and with the anti-discrimination act of the late ‘60s it changed,” he said.
“Then came the Whitlam Government and the declaration that post school education was to be free – which women really took advantage of. It took until 1988 for women to outnumber men on university campuses, which has continued until today.
“Agriculture was slow off the blocks and it took until 2003 and for that changeover to occur and since 2003, women have overtaken men on university campuses.”
Prof Pratley said the increase in women taking agricultural degrees and entering the workforce has had a significantly positive impact on the industry.
“We have doubled the talent pool and increased the diversity and attitudes associated with the decision making,” he said.
“Something I am ashamed of”
The Indigenous side of the agricultural workforce was another area which Prof Pratley said was holding the industry back.
“They were really notable in the early stages of colonisation. But anyone who has read any of the history of agriculture and the Indigenous will know that it was a really awful period and something I personally am ashamed of,” he said.
“We have a responsibility to redress that situation.”
Prof Pratley said looking at the trends of Indigenous university students, agriculture needed to improve.
“If you look at the numbers of Indigenous agriculture students that graduate each year, the number is five or less – and that is pretty appalling,” he said.
“If we look to the future, it is not very bright either because the ATSI numbers in year 12 are pretty low and are unlikely to make much of an impact.”
Loss of political power
Prof Pratley said a combination of population decline, political decisions and the environmental movement had contributed to a loss of political power.
“The bush used to have a lot of political power,” he said.
“Rural population declined and we lost the empathetic relationship that we may have had with the community at large.
“The Whitlam Government saw that the political system was skewed to the bush and put in the one-person one-vote policy.
“Then the environmental movement was established in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Greens party. They had plenty of ammunition, they created agriculture’s image for itself and agriculture didn’t have the leadership to push back.”
Agriculture pushed back on education
Prof Pratley said the agricultural industry’s attitude to education over the years has been a direct contrast to the rest of the community.
“If you look at the education revolution, you would have to ask ‘where was agriculture?’,” he said.
“Agriculture was one of the only sectors that had specialist colleges and specialist high schools and it didn’t seem to want them. Agriculture has improved in education over the years, but so did the community.”
Prof Pratley said had not supported apprenticeships like other industries, which made it hard to attract specialist employees.
“The policy position of the predecessor institutions to the National Farmers’ Federation were not to support apprenticeship,” he said.
“The reason they did that was because you had the commitment and you had to pay them more when they finished. Didn’t want to pay them more, didn’t want the commitment.
“There has been a long history in agriculture of labour been seen as just a cost and a tool for employers, rather than individuals who were worth investing in so that they can deliver more to the business.”
I don’t disagree completely with the five reasons; however, I do disagree that agriculture has been the one that didn’t act in all these instances. Don’t forget the closing down of the ag colleges was, in my opinion, because they didn’t stay relevant. I’m also a believer that when people are given things for nothing, such as huge COVID payments, you will create a mindset you don’t need in the community. Agriculture is far from the only industry with workforce issues at the moment, so I think the problems stem much deeper than the five reasons mentioned.