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 covers worthwhile initiatives including improving the collection, analysis and forecasting of agricultural labour force data, recognising the longstanding lack of comprehensive data on the agriculture workforce. It also supports 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 these initiatives around the country is far too little. While the investment in an AgCAREERSTART program pilot enabling school leavers to experience work in agriculture is promising and would work well alongside current initiatives, including Gap Year in Horticulture and Cotton Gap lea by QFF members Growcom and Cotton Australia, but more information is needed to understand its potential.
Sadly, the Employment in Agriculture package will not provide any immediate solutions to the unprecedented agriculture labour market disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to restrict farmers’ productivity and profitability. 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 obligations that require new competencies. To ensure the agriculture sector has a sustainable, skilled workforce now and in the future, agriculture industry bodies in Queensland are working together as the Rural Jobs and Skills Alliance (RJSA), led by the Queensland Farmers’ Federation. With funding for the Alliance expected to end in October, agriculture requires a stronger commitment from the state and federal governments to maximise its workforce, adjust to change, create efficiencies and take advantage of new opportunities.