A decade ago agricultural education was in the doldrums. Agriculture in schools was considered the second rate option and very few students were selecting it for higher education. The image of the sector was negative and its social licence was in question. Much of this was based on community perception and the misplaced interpretation of data by authorities.
The rural industries were also not engaged with agricultural education at that time. They held the view that education was other people’s responsibility. They were the first to complain about the lack of graduates to employ, but they were doing little then to create career paths and promote these to prospective employees, even though it was in their best interests to do so.
Ten years on and there has been a revolution and the image of agriculture has been transformed.
It is now recognised that agriculture is about more than farms – there is a very large support industry crying out for graduates in agriculture. Real data show that there are several jobs around Australia for every agricultural graduate. In a crowded workplace, where too often there are not enough jobs to go around for graduates from other disciplines such law and arts, agriculture still struggles to find the graduates it needs for the jobs available.
Industry attitudes have been transformed, as well. Most now see capacity and leadership as key issues for their respective industries. Workforce planning and development of associated career paths is a key part of the agenda going forward. Social licence is critical to community acceptance and is enhanced by a professional workforce.
The jobs themselves are also transforming. While the sector still needs many agronomists and livestock specialists, on-farm manual labour is being replaced by high-tech systems such as GPS and remote sensing technologies including robots and drones.
This means that higher order management skills are needed and, in turn, these require greater computer expertise. Off-farm, as well as on-farm, the use of smart technologies is now well embedded.
Along the value chain, new jobs are being created and old ones changed with a strong agenda of traceability and quality assurance. All of these are facilitated by sophisticated financiers, international traders and marketers all of whom benefit from a strong agricultural education.
While academia and industry have led the way, political engagement has also played its part in driving this change, as it is now recognised that agriculture must play a vital role in export earnings as well as the quality of life of all Australians.
The result is that agriculture is now high on the agenda of educational institutions with some universities entering the field for the first time as they see the need and opportunity. Student numbers at universities have been rising for the last four to five years, while in our schools there is much greater activity at all levels. It would be greater still if only we could find more agriculture teachers.
Of course, agriculture should not rest on its laurels and we need to continue promoting the positive image and communicating the great opportunities that exist for graduates of all persuasions in careers so important to the national and global economies.
The prospects for the future are so exciting.
Jim Pratley is Research Professor of Agriculture in the School of Agricultural and Wine Sciences at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, Australia. He is also the secretary of the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture.
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