A critical shortage of skilled workers could hamper Britain’s poultry and wider farming sector, according to a Lantra report. So what needs to be done, asks Olivia Cooper



British agriculture is in dire straits, with ageing producers struggling to source skilled workers for increasingly technical jobs. The situation is so bad that it threatens the nation’s ability to feed itself, according to a report from Lantra, the skills council for land-based industries.

The report: A Skills Assessment for the Environmental and Land-based Sector, was commissioned to discover the workforce skills gaps and identify needs through to 2017. With a background of climate change, population growth, limited natural resources and an uncertain economic picture, it is essential the industry invests in the necessary training, it says.

Agriculture, including the poultry sector, finds it more difficult to recruit workers than other sectors, with 31% of farming vacancies hard to fill because of skills shortages. Farm managers and producers are particularly difficult to replace, with 70% and 59% of vacancies proving problematic, respectively. However, a low number of applicants means that 61% of employers find it hard to recruit staff, indicating the lack of interest in working in the sector.

“This research gives us all food for thought,” says Lantra chief executive Peter Martin. “We must address these critical shortages in the workforce now and take on board the need for ever-increasing levels of skills. This is a modern and technical sector and if we are to meet the challenges climate change and food security throw at producers, we must act now.”

The land-based sector accounts for one in 10 UK businesses and will require an estimated 110,000 new workers over the next decade, says the Agri Skills Forum. One in four workers are over 55, and one in 12 is already over 65, so the industry is about to lose a generation of skilled workers through retirement.

“People who own and run farm businesses are getting older,” says chairman Richard Longthorp. “Agriculture is not seen as an attractive industry to new entrants. Anybody can see that this situation is not sustainable.”

Traditionally, farm workers learnt on the job, developing excellent skills, but very few recognised qualifications. Some 41% of livestock workers have either no qualifications, or only level one certificates – significantly worse than the national average of 37%.

In the poultry sector, the picture is better, particularly poultry meat where the main integrators run their own training and scholarship programmes, such as PD Hook. On top of this, the meat sector recently launched the Poultry Meat Training Initiative, with the aim of standardising training linked to a set of minimum training standards for the different job types. The initiative is a collaborative project between the British Poultry Council, National Farmers Union, Lantra and Poultec.

All land-based businesses spend an average of £2975 a year on training and developing each employee, which is more per person than any other sector. But smaller businesses, such as free-range units, do not benefit from economies of scale when training compared with larger poultry companies.

In addition, 56% of the workforce is self-employed, against a national average of 18%. Approximately 5% are unpaid family workers, and the poultry sector relies heavily on migrant labour, the supply of which is dwindling. This makes it difficult to upskill workers.

Farm managers, producers, and farm workers are the most difficult jobs to fill because of skills shortages. Farm managers account for 11% of job roles, skilled trade occupations (such as farmers) take up 35% of the sector, and elementary roles account for 30%. “Employers require a range of skills from their staff, at a mix of levels,” says the report.

“The skills that employers most frequently cite as being required (and also in need of improvement) are job-specific technical skills. These would include operating machinery, driving tractors, animal care/handling and farming.” Problem solving, teamwork and communication are also in need of upgrading.

Well-trained workers are proven to boost productivity, while skills gaps heighten the burden on experienced staff and increase running costs. Although cost and time can be significant barriers to training, jobs in agriculture are becoming increasingly demanding, says the report. In the face of an ageing workforce, the industry must therefore take steps to try and attract new blood.

“Lantra believes that our sector offers a range of worthwhile and rewarding careers,” says chairman Gordon McGlone. “We therefore encourage motivated people to take up the exciting jobs on offer, and those already working in our sector to update and develop their skills.”

The organisation has drawn up a strategic plan to help businesses to access needs-specific training and will continue its skills research on an annual basis.