Ag graduates in short supply

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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Curtin University Agribusiness senior lecturer John Noonan with Agribusiness students Jason Schutz, Joey Della Vedova, James Macfarlane and Mathilda Matthee.
Camera IconCurtin University Agribusiness senior lecturer John Noonan with Agribusiness students Jason Schutz, Joey Della Vedova, James Macfarlane and Mathilda Matthee. Credit: The West Australian

The rapidly declining number of WA university entrants opting for agricultural-focused courses appears to have been arrested.

However, despite some renewed interest, there remains a shortage of enrolments and graduates in agricultural courses to meet industry demand, leading to an ongoing skills shortage across the industry.

In WA, Curtin University offers agribusiness courses, while UWA offers agricultural science-focused courses and Murdoch focuses on the animal and veterinary sciences.

There is also an agricultural business management course offered by Charles Sturt University through the CY O'Connor Institute at the Northam Muresk Institute campus, where Curtin previously offered its agribusiness course.

Curtin University agribusiness senior lecturer John Noonan said fortunately the number of enrolments in agribusiness courses had been rapidly increasing in recent years.

Using Curtin's course as an example, he said there had been a major upswing in first year enrolments in recent years.

He said over the decade from 1999-2009, the number of entrants to agribusiness programs at Curtin had declined for a range of reasons, dropping to about 20 first-year students in total.

Throughout that time, the students were increasingly choosing to study at the Bentley campus in preference to rural campuses, he said.

This year, that figure was 70, though about 12 have deferred for a year.

And although it is early days, based on first and second preference selections, in 2015 Curtin is expecting more than 40, despite the half-cohort completing Year 12 this year.

The renewed interest in agricultural courses could be attributed to several factors, including a decline in job prospects in the resources sector, Mr Noonan said.

Other factors playing a role include the raised profile of the importance of food, potentially because of the rise in popularity of lifestyle and food television programs, Mr Noonan said.

"Also playing a part is the challenge on how we feed the world," he said.

"There is an increasing reality amongst school leavers that in 2050 we could have 9 billion people on the planet, and there will be an issue providing enough food and reducing food wastage."

Meanwhile, an increasing number of students are transferring out of other professional degree courses such as veterinary science and environmental science into agribusiness, faced with reality that the amount of these science-based jobs is decreasing.

Mr Noonan said despite this increased interest, there were still not enough agricultural and agribusiness graduates to meet current and growing industry demand.

"At Curtin, we could comfortably treble, or even increase fivefold, the number of agribusiness graduates in order to match the market's needs," he said.

According to a paper produced by the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture, the number of graduates being supplied by Australian universities is less than 20 per cent of the number needed to satisfy the job market.

Mr Noonan said of Curtin students due to finish their course in 2014 not returning to the farm, about 75 per cent had already secured jobs.

And because of this shortage, agribusiness graduates are being handsomely paid.

According to agricultural personnel agent Rimfire Resources, agribusiness entry-level jobs are offering salaries up to $25,000 higher than those offered for other professional qualifications such as accounting and the sciences.

Curtin is a key supporter of the Australian Grain Institute of WA's capacity building efforts that have been incorporated into GIWA's strategic plan for the industry.

It is also working to stimulate interest in agribusiness enrolments, for example targeting upper high school students through the Primary Industry Centre for Science Education program, which invites students to spend week-long stints with agricultural professionals to get a taste of the industry and its opportunities.

Curtin will continue to support the work that PICSE has pioneered through its Centre for Crop and Disease Management when the National PICSE program finishes early next year.

Mr Noonan said PICSE hoped to go back to the foundations of the education curriculum in primary school.

"We hope to get kids switched on to agriculture in their very earliest days in the school system," he said.

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