FFN Opinion: Rethink needed to fill labour gap

Future Farmers Network directors regularly give their opinion on the latest news, events and issues in agriculture for an article for Australian Community Media. Here’s the most recent yarn from FFN Chair Richard Kohne.

There has been a lot of press highlighting the economic loss that resulted from a lack of backpackers entering Australia who ordinarily are a key source of farm labour, with high value crops ready for harvest going to waste during the pandemic.

While labour shortages have been something the agriculture industry has faced for some time, the pandemic highlights an opportunity for the sector to rethink how we engage with the labour market to create a more sustainable and resilient workforce.

During this time, industry and government have been looking to target local labour to try and fill the gap including school and university students who may be on holidays, which has been challenging.

This lack of engagement is a big opportunity for the industry to reconnect with local youth which, importantly, could result in a greater workforce beyond just labour required during harvest. This requires a change in mindset on seasonal workers to being potential full time farm workers and even farm managers that also require professional development.

Youth are more connected than ever and with the largest industries in Australia providing competitive salaries and development opportunities agriculture needs to look at what it is offering to attract and retain talent. Farming businesses will need to take a long-term view on their staff and look to share our industry vision to this key segment of the labour market who will ultimately be charged with achieving the ambitious targets that have been set.

Taking the time to educate staff on roles that they might aspire to one day is an important part of this as well as opening up opportunities to upskill and network. Great examples of this are functions like EvokeAG, Young Beef Producers Forum and Farm2Fork. These are events that showcase the great industry we operate in and people who have built successful careers within it. These events inspire those who attend to perform at a higher level, think innovatively and build industry connections.

A change of mindset from staff earning the right to attend these functions to one of seeing the value in inspiring workers to remain in the industry and return to the farm with a renewed passion or set of ideas will elevate the industry. Furthermore, this investment in staff is often repaid through greater loyalty and appreciation.

Once back at the farm, supporting staff in gaining membership to local agriculture community groups or broader industry groups, such as the Future Farmers Network, increases engagement, increases longevity, and provides a closer community within the industry which can sometimes feel isolated. This is key to building an inclusive industry and retaining the people who we are investing in.
Some businesses are practicing these principles, but they are predominantly corporates. The opportunity is largely for private farms to open their mind to the multitude of opportunities that exist in the education and upskilling market and encourage participation in the industry above a team members job title.

Empowering staff and inspiring a passion for the industry will create a culture of career building and result in a much more resilient workforce, ultimately underpinning the success of the agriculture industry.

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