The Queensland Farmers’ Federation (QFF) has identified the urgent need for a more skilled workforce to support the growth of the agriculture sector and to respond to the challenges and opportunities it faces. It is clear the industry needs well-trained workers who have the capabilities required to face future opportunities including climate, new consumer trends, rapid technological developments, and recent regulatory updates including biosecurity issues that require new competencies. The sector needs to ensure that it has a sustainable, skilled workforce now and in the future. To achieve this aim, agriculture industry bodies in Queensland have come together to form the Rural Jobs and Skills Alliance (RJSA).
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, international travel restrictions and increased demand for a limited supply of available workers, Queensland’s agriculture sector is facing an estimated shortfall of up around 9,000 casual workers in the horticultural sector alone, which has resulted in crop losses running into the tens of millions of dollars. Recognising the immediate labour and ongoing skills shortage and its negative impact on the agriculture sector, the recent 2021-22 Federal Budget included a $29.8 million Employment in Agriculture package. The package is intended to improve agricultural employment opportunities to address some recommendations from the National Agriculture Workforce Strategy released in March 2021.
The investment considers some worthwhile initiatives including improving the collection, analysis and forecasting of agricultural labour force data which recognises the longstanding lack of comprehensive data on the agriculture workforce. It also supports some much-needed research in the attraction and retention of workers in agriculture. While the continued investment in the Fair Farms program is welcome to help employers and businesses develop the necessary skills to create attractive, fair and safe working conditions.
The package includes $10 million over five years to support an AgUp program which will co-fund industry initiatives to develop career progression pathways and upskill, train and mentor workers. However, the minimal $2.5 million a year investment to cover initiatives around the country is far too little. There are many valuable initiatives and proposals including the Agricultural Work Placement Program that should be guaranteed support to address the sector’s workforce needs.
Attraction and development strategies are key for the sector to address ongoing labour shortages. The investment in the AgCAREERSTART program pilot enabling school leavers to experience work in agriculture is promising. The pilot appears to be aligned to the Australian Land and Environment Service initiative recommended by the National Agriculture Workforce Strategy, to support agriculture and the environment, help build understanding of the agricultural sector, and give the under-employed and young participants new skills, and career opportunities. We envisage this pilot would work well alongside current initiatives Gap Year in Horticulture and Cotton Gap lead by the RJSA partners Growcom and Cotton Australia. However, the pilot lacks detail and more information is needed.
The budget also allocated a small amount of funding to develop resources for agricultural employers to implement workforce management practices. While insufficient to achieve real change, these efforts should capitalise on what the RJSA has started at the state level through working with Jobs Queensland to develop similar resources.
Unfortunately, the Employment in Agriculture package will not provide any immediate solutions to the unprecedented agriculture labour market disruption, which continues to restrict farmers’ productivity and profitability. The budget falls short in fully addressing the recommendations made by the National Agriculture Workforce strategy. The budget lacks support for farmers and farmworkers to gain the skills needed to utilise digital agriculture, it also lacks initiatives for improving diversity, or initiatives that support links between agricultural industries and the training sector to improve the delivery and relevance of training.
Furthermore, effective implementation of the workforce strategies requires strong leadership and collaboration across industry, state and federal government, to achieve the best outcomes for the industry both now and in the long term. Building industry led collaboration as RJSA has done the state level is key and should be supported.
There are many career and professional opportunities in the agriculture sector. Food, fibre and foliage production and processing are essential industries and provide many opportunities for people who want to make a real difference to society both in Australia and globally. We need a stronger commitment from the federal government to maximise its workforce, adjust to change, create efficiencies and take advantage of the new opportunities.