3 August 2001

Skills shortage sees employment agency role growing quickly

So many people have moved

out of the farming industry

that machinery rings in some

areas are finding an extra

role as employment agencies.

Mike Williams reports

A SHORTAGE of skilled labour in the agricultural industry is the result of a two-way squeeze – farmers are reducing the number of employees to cut wage costs, and at the same time people are leaving the industry because of doubts about the future of farming.

It is a situation which is far from new. The SASTAK machinery ring based at Craven Arms Shropshire, and covering both Shropshire and Staffordshire, was helping members to share labour as well as tractors and machinery soon after its formation in 1991.

"We were dealing only with tractors and machinery to start with," says Julia Brereton, chief executive of SASTAK. "But it quickly became obvious that there was also a need for a similar service to deal with labour.

"We started on a farm-to-farm basis initially, and then we added a register of people who are self-employed. As the labour side of our work continued to grow, we made a successful application for EC funding in 1995 to allow us to establish SASTAK officially as an employment agency."

Since then the employment section organised by Rachael Evans has become SASTAKs main growth area, and too many vacancies are chasing too few recruits. Herdsmen to work with cattle and pigs are particularly scarce and, in the arable areas, there are not enough tractor drivers for the busy autumn period.

"There is a serious shortage of labour for farm work in this area," says Mrs Brereton. "Young people can get a job as a shelf-stacker at the local supermarket and earn £10/hour working indoors, and that can seem preferable to working with livestock on a farm.

"SASTAK is fortunate in having some good contacts overseas, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, and we can usually find a few young people who want to work here for a few months, but the overall picture is difficult."

The cost of SASTAK membership is a £50 fee to become a shareholder plus an £85 a year subscription, and contractor Colin Bowen thinks it is good value for money. Based at Oakfield Farm, Craven Arms, he has been a member of SASTAK since he started the business in 1991. At that time he was working on his own, but since then his business has expanded and he has three full-time employees and up to three on a part-time basis.

"It was not easy getting started, and the reason I joined SASTAK was to find work, both with and without my tractor. It worked very well," he says. "In fact they played a pivotal role in helping to get the business established, and some of the customers they found for me 10 years ago are still with me. I still use SASTAK, but these days I am the supplier of labour or machinery in about half the transactions, and in the other half I am the demander.

"If I need an extra person or another tractor to cope with the work load, my first call would be to the SASTAK office, but I would also be on the phone to SASTAK if we are coming up to a slack period and have labour or tractors available for work. We also rely on them to look after our training needs because they know about the grants available."

The biggest operation in Mr Bowens contracting business is silage and straw baling, using two Massey Ferguson MF185 big square balers, plus two McHale 998 wrappers for the silage bales. The second biggest section is cutting highway verges and hedges, and third on the list -and his personal favourite – is countryside stewardship work including hedge laying, fencing and tree planting.

Another big job recently was providing manpower for disposing of carcasses of animals slaughtered because of foot-and-mouth disease. This was at the height of the epidemic when his normal agricultural work had almost ceased, and SASTAK was looking for people to take on the carcass disposal.

"SASTAK has played a very big part in my business over the past 10 years, and they have made a substantial contribution to the growth of the business," he says. &#42