As young Australians who work in the Agricultural sector, myself and my brother are a rarity. We aren’t special and we don’t think we are, but we’re part of a dying breed: young Aussies who still work in ag.
The labour shortage in rural Australia isn’t a recent development – it’s a chronic blight that worsens every year, and it’s proving hard to treat.
According to the ABS, the median age of ag workers is now 53 years, compared to the national average of 40. This is a huge difference.
This figure looks even more worrying when we consider that we don’t have enough young successors to replace our ageing workforce when they retire.
To understand how to address this issue, we have to look at what’s causing it. And when we do, the harsh but simple way of framing it is with two words: money and careers.
Globalisation, maturation of our economy and Australia’s growth as a professional centre are all good things. However, this positive direction with its uni degrees, great pay and air-conditioned office jobs has sapped a lot of our young workforce.
So-called ‘rural’ work also pays excellently if you work in the resources sector, and this financial incentive has consistently drained much of our young and ambitious talent over the last decade or more.
I’m not faulting anyone on their choices – considering the options, it seems like a good decision. They can either buy or work on a farm, suffering through long hours and tight profit margins, or they can jump on a FIFO plane and be on six digits without so much as a machine ticket.
The problem is that the part about “long hours and tight profit margins” isn’t really true or representative of what an ag career is. Which leads me to the next issue.
For the most part, the general public simply don’t ‘get’ what a career in ag is – including many kids who are from the country themselves.
“Agriculture” isn’t “farming”. Or I should say, it isn’t just farming. It’s the entire food production and supply chain, from lab research on grain varieties to industrial designers and engineers creating efficient harvesting machinery.
It even includes recruitment companies who help supply the workforce that keeps the industry moving.
But the public – young or old, urban or rural – don’t seem to understand this. When they think of agriculture, they think of wise and weathered old blokes like the guy on the Bega commercial.
They don’t think of the opportunities in ag (maybe because they don’t hear about them), especially the non-financial ones, like work-life balance, the fulfilment you feel as a food provider, or growing to appreciate the land that we call home.
What ag needs
Is a healthy, well-staffed ag sector an unobtainable pipe dream? I don’t think so. If I did, I wouldn’t be doing what I do.
I do think it will need some work to get it going though. Some organisations like the NFF are doing a stellar job of promoting ag to the youth market, but just like any cause-related initiative it seems that the correlation between PR/advertising budgets and success is more than coincidental.
That said, here’s my humble opinion on what our ag sector needs:
As many brilliant minds have already established well before me, education is the key: education of the public, and formal education for the next generation of ag professionals.
I’d like to see the media focus less on portraying the old-fashioned storybook version of ag, and instead focus on the modern, multi-disciplinary industry that it is today.
We as a nation need to look at the ag sector’s successes. All we seem to hear about is the doom and gloom. I understand that only certain types of stories sell, but for the sake of our nation’s food security and rural communities, I’d like to see us paint a more balanced picture of what a career in our sector is.
I’m not leaving the farmers out either – they are the people that put food on our plates. However, unless you’re born into it, farming isn’t a cheap industry to get into, and unless you know how to run a farm, the learning curve can be unforgiving.
But aren’t these challenges the same for any business? Thousands of young tradies and uni graduates get out there and start their own businesses every year. Maybe the government could put some money into incentivising young Australians into owning profit-turning farms. They’re already doing it for first homes; it’s worth thinking about.
As for formal education, certain interest groups and NGOs are doing their part to promote our industry via scholarships and foundations. This is a great start, and it’s something I’d love to see more of.
I would however suggest one tweak: these uni’s and training organisations need to recategorise “agriculture”. As a blanket term, we already know it doesn’t conjure up the right image in people’s minds. Maybe they should be putting more ag-related courses as electives within major non-ag degrees. At the moment we’ve got Ag Science… and that’s about it.
We have a long and hard road ahead of us. Myself, my brother and our company are trying to do our part to keep Aussie farms well staffed and profitable, but in the end we’re just a drop in the ocean.
I’m not simply throwing my hands up and asking the government, uni’s and media to fix our ailing industry either.
I’m asking the whole country to fix it, one step at a time. We like to dream big, us country boys.