Opinion: Work experience student rises to the challenge

We’ve just had a work experience student to stay for a week. He’s been here before (mainly as a broom operator, with a few basic tractor driving lessons thrown in) so knows his way around.

But although he is only 16, I’ve been flat out on the combine, so I just had to drop him in at the deep end and hope he’d get on with it.

I’d better stress that in his previous visits we trained him properly in safe tractor operation, and I chose level fields for him to work in, with negligible road travel.

On Monday I made sure he was competent on the loader and set him to mucking out a shed. When I returned, the shed and machine were remarkably unbashed and every last bit of dung had been loaded or forked by hand into the bucket and tipped.

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About the author

Sam Walker
Farmers Weekly opinion writer
Sam is a first-generation tenant farmer running a 120ha (300-acre) organic arable and beef farm on the Jurassic Coast of East Devon. He has a BSc from Harper Adams and previous jobs have included farm management in Gloucestershire and Cambridgeshire and overseas development work in Papua New Guinea and Zimbabwe. He is a trustee of FWAG South West and his landlords, Clinton Devon Estate, ran an ELM trial in which he was closely involved, along with fellow tenants.
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On Tuesday he took one of my tractors to the local village, passed his tractor test, then came back and learned how to operate the batch dryer.

On Wednesday I went combining and let him get on with the drying. I made sure there were people around if he got into difficulties, but he didn’t need them and he got the oats down to the 13.5% demanded by the millers.

On Thursday I set him up raking straw ahead of the baling contractor. I came back to find a happy contractor and not a blade of straw left behind.

On Friday I marked out a headland, got him going on the plough and rushed off combining for my neighbour. When I returned, I was amazed (and relieved) to find a near-perfectly inverted field.

He’s gone home having had an amazing week and I’m much further ahead with harvest than I would otherwise be.

It was really only because I was short-staffed and under pressure with shedding oats in a catchy year that I was pushed into giving him these opportunities and I was thrilled that he’d proven so capable.

But I know of far too many work experience students who only ever get to do the lowly tasks, get bored and are lost to the industry.

We need to revisit the “time served” idea that it takes ages before you get any skilled jobs and to start firing the next generation’s enthusiasm.

Many of these guys are so keen they’ll have watched the videos, read the manuals and know more about what all the buttons do than the old-school operator anyway.

I’m pretty sure that trainee fighter pilots don’t spend years washing a plane before they’re allowed to fly it.

Of course there is drudgery, as with any job – but it’s important that’s shared out too.

And we’ve all met people who just want to do the minimum, get paid and go home on time, but they will never make outstanding farm staff and could probably earn more doing a mindless job in the local town.

If we want to attract talented individuals into agriculture, it’s worth taking the time to study the person we’re employing, their interests and inclinations, and do our best to make the job rewarding for them.

The right people will rise to a challenge and thrive on the responsibility if we understand how to motivate them and develop their pride in the job. Oh, and if you’re reading this Laurie, thanks…

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