OPINION: We’re short of vacancies, not applicants

There is a statistic doing the rounds that UK agriculture needs 60,000 new entrants in the next ten years. I can’t find where this figure originated. Maybe the principals of all the UK’s agricultural colleges got together for a night on the beer and scribbled it on a packet of Silk Cut while they waited for their kebabs to be made.

The farming industry, suffering as it does from so many commentators, conferences and hangers-on, is a hothouse for fanciful statistics. Through repetition, they become accepted wisdom. Here we have another excellent example. Let’s say there are 80,000 commercial farmers in the UK and a few more than 120,000 people employed by them. The replacement of one-third of our workforce in a decade would require some sort of revolution. Why do people parrot this nonsense?

The actual trend is for mechanisation and consolidation which, sadly, is reducing the number of career opportunities.The reality is that most farms buy bigger machines and, wrongly in my opinion, replace retiring farm staff at a rate of two for one.

I don’t deny that agriculture is still a great industry with a bright future and great careers. During the next decade there will be exceptional opportunities for the exceptional and the exceptionally lucky. This sword has another edge. As farming profitability improves, it will be even harder for young people to get a foot on the ladder and the job market will be highly competitive at entry level.

The problem is not a shortage of people but a shortage of vacancies.

I can illustrate this with my own experience. I recently advertised for an apprentice tractor operator through Lincoln University’s website. Even with modest publicity we were inundated with decent responses. We have recruited an excellent new member of the team; he has hardly broken anything. I am proudly watching him steam clean his tractor through the window as I write this. Naturally we picked our favourite candidate, but we actually had a choice of half a dozen other suitable applicants. There were another eight who would have been OK at a push.

It wasn’t like this when my generation was of school-leaving age; for many a job on a farm was a last resort. Now farming jobs are taken seriously and strongly contested. The candidates are out there.

Farmers are short-sighted if they fail to spot and capitalise upon this pool of willing talent. We need to take time to train them, just as others took the time to train us. Too many farms lazily believe they can hire fully-trained operators in their mid-20s straight off the shelf. This often spells disaster. The best operators tend to be proud of their work and loyal to their farms. Qualified operators who move from one farm to another tend to be itinerant by nature; the permanently-dissatisfied types who turn first to the jobs page. I believe it is better to put a school leaver in the harness and break them into your own farming system instead.

Empowering someone young and enthusiastic usually brings fresh ideas and optimism. Apprentices are also great value. Even taking account of training expenses, damage repair costs and the disadvantage of having to listen to Radio 1 in the workplace; apprentices start out as an affordable extra pair of hands.

Let’s remove our blinkers and start making opportunities for these enthusiastic young folk. If we don’t, we will miss the biggest opportunity in a generation.

Matthew Naylor farms 162ha of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a trustee of LEAF and a Nuffield scholar.

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