Opinion: Attracting farming’s next gen is everyone’s job

The farming and agri-food sector should understand the importance of nurturing young people for the future more than any other industry.

Our raison d’etre is to create an environment in which a young plant or animal can thrive in its formative stages of development so that we can maximise its potential at maturity. So why are we so reluctant to invest in our future workforce?

Farmers, machinery companies, animal feed businesses, plant protection and animal health organisations, merchants, co-ops and research, logistics, processing businesses wax lyrical about the need to invest in the people of tomorrow. To a man or woman, they speak of the industry investing in a structured careers initiative aimed at attracting young people.

But these very same people aren’t referring to themselves. They speak of the “farming and agri-food industry” as if it is a nebulous pot of cash sitting in the sky overseen by a generous sugar daddy who will divvy pound notes at will.

Most (and this probably includes you) believe that, while it is extremely important, it should be left to a small handful of large players to cough up. That isn’t good enough, nor is it sustainable. Every employer within our supply chain, whether they employ one person or 10,000 has  a responsibility to invest in the future.

How can the same industry that talks ad nauseam of the need to spend money on innovation across the whole supply chain (which I agree with) fail to emphasise the importance of attracting young people to mobilise that innovation. That doesn’t make sense. Mercedes Maclaren wouldn’t build the best car without assuring they have the best driver.

So why the urgency? The careers “space” is incredibly crowded. Nearly every industry – especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) sector – is struggling to attract the quantity and calibre of school-, college- and university-leavers they need. We are not an exception. There are huge shortfalls in the number of people required for farming’s future prosperity. Other industries are investing heavily and we are in danger of being left behind.

Projected data also suggests that in 10 years’ time the number of school children entering further and higher education will drop dramatically as those cost spirals. So our focus on attracting those between the ages of 13 and 18 is essential.

We have a bigger uphill battle than most our competitors. Although farming is receiving much greater and more favourable profile in the media, many still see farming and agri-food as a narrow entry career role where only those with access to farms need apply.

Bright Crop, our cross-industry careers initiative, was set up to give our diverse sector a single voice, visibility at careers fairs and to connect education with the industry’s people and businesses. We spend a fraction on it compared with similar sized industries’ careers programmes. Delaying the investment cannot be a consideration.  We all know that people are the most important part of any business. 

At the Oxford farming conference, the motion for the annual debate was: Is agriculture an equal opportunities employer? I wasn’t surprised that debate was polarised around gender. It highlighted how disconnected we are from the issue. Of course we need more women in our industry. But we are most certainly not an equal opportunities employer on the grounds of gender alone. We are failing to articulate to all school children of the diversity of careers opportunities that exist across farming and agri-food.

We all have a responsibility to invest in our workforce of tomorrow. If we don’t, we will get what we deserve.

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