Agriculture skills crisis looms

Melissa WilliamsCountryman
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A Senate inquiry into the dire skills shortage facing Australian agriculture has recommended the formation of a new peak industry body.

The AgriBusiness Council of Australia (ACA), set up last year by a group of agribusiness leaders as a conduit between industry and government, has proposed it become that body and have a similar role in Canberra to the influential Minerals Council of Australia.

But such a move has raised the ire of the National Farmers Federation (NFF), which says it already has a mandate to represent farmers and the broader farm sector, a strong and established relationship with government and runs on the board in achieving major outcomes for agriculture.

NFF president Jock Laurie said the Senate inquiry had overstepped its terms of reference and was encouraging the agricultural sector to waste resources in setting up another body.

He said the NFF was already investigating issues of education, foreign investment and food security and greater collaboration between existing organisations was needed - not creating a new body with no credibility.

WAFarmers has supported the NFF and president Dale Park said there was no need for another representative body in an already over-represented sector.

He said the NFF had a proven track record in delivering outcomes and should be the body to progress the recommendations outlined in the final Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee report into higher education and skills training for Australian agriculture and agribusiness.

_The report was tabled in the Senate last week and stressed the urgency for a national peak industry representative body for agriculture to address serious skills shortages, agricultural productivity and regional food security. _

The Senate inquiry process found there was a big gap between supply of and demand for qualified graduates in agriculture.

The market for graduates from agricultural and related courses has been estimated at 4000 to 6000 per year, but universities and vocational education providers are producing less than 700 a year and there is a threat of extinction of tertiary education colleges.

The Senate committee also found there was a pervasive shortfall of people in a wide range of agricultural occupations, from farmhands to agronomists.

In WA, the numbers of graduates from agricultural and related courses at the University of WA, Curtin University and Murdoch University have been declining since 2004 and the future of Curtin's Muresk Institute of Agriculture at Northam remains uncertain.

During the course of the Senate inquiry, which attracted 69 submissions, staged three public hearings and reviewed many reports, the University of Western Sydney cancelled its 100-year-old agricultural course at Hawkesbury Agricultural College.

Senate inquiry committee chairman and WA Liberal Senator Chris Back said all levels of government, academia, training providers and peak industry bodies needed to work more closely and effectively to boost awareness of the importance of education and skills training in agriculture to reverse the trend of demand outstripping supply.

He said the sector currently had up to 50 separate representative organisations and urgently needed reform to negotiate with government as a united voice that represented every aspect of agriculture from paddock to plate.

Mr Back said the NFF was doing a lot of good work, but predominantly represented farmers and the production side of agriculture, which was just one part of the supply chain.

He said an effective high level organisation needed to represent producers, financiers, logistics and transport players, retail, tertiary and vocational educators, registered training providers and other skills service providers.

Mr Back said the Senate inquiry report had not called for the government to fund a new peak council and had not named a chairperson.

He said representatives on the peak body would be responsible for selecting a leader and determining the level and methods of its funding.

"The peak body, possibly called the Agriculture Council of Australia, would investigate issues such as the best models for agricultural and agribusiness education and skills shortages and make recommendations about strategies for government to fund," he said.

_Mr Back said the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee report tabled last week had been endorsed by Coalition, ALP and Greens Senate committee members and the Federal Government had up to 90 days to respond. He said the formation of a peak national body would most likely need to be driven at a ministerial level. _

ACA chief executive Roy Duncanson said his organisation had proposed to become the peak national industry body through the Senate inquiry submission process.

"We are pleased the Senate inquiry process recognised the need for a peak body representing all facets of agriculture to progress key issues, such as education, with no strings attached to government through funding," he said.

Mr Duncanson said there was a desperate shortage of university graduates in agriculture and the gradual depletion of courses, reflected in the Hawkesbury closure and imminent changes at Muresk, was a major concern to agribusiness.

"Agriculture is facing one of the biggest skills gaps in its history," he said. "We need collaboration and joint efforts to promote the sector as a wealth-creating industry to attract good people in to the industry."

Report recommendations

Key recommendations from the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee report: _

·Formation of a national peak council for agriculture;

·Peak council to form a national strategy to address skills shortages, productivity and food security;

·Better promotion of the agricultural industry;

·More co-operation between deans of agriculture;

·Optimise research investment through university collaboration;

·Trainee teachers to learn more about agriculture in undergraduate programs;

·Better inform future teachers about food and fibre-related industries;

·Continued funding for Primary Industry Centre for Science Education;

·Government funds to lift the profile of agriculture in primary schools;

·Review VET training models;

·Progress a national food plan; and

·ABARES to analyse decline in agriculture and agribusiness extension services and research outcomes.

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