Opinion: Workforce shortage sparks ‘people poaching’

A new wave of farm theft is blighting rural Britain. While sheep, diesel and satellite theft is still a concern, a new white-collar crime is sweeping across the UK.

Prime staff are being lifted from under the noses of their employers. Poaching of key operators from near-neighbours is rife, causing much friction and leading to spiralling wages.

See also: Opinion – farmers need to build bridges with the corporate world

About the author

Ian Pigott
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a Linking Environment and Farming demonstration unit. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.
Read more articles by Ian Pigott

Brexit, Covid and farmers’ offspring turning their back on the industry has left agriculture woefully short of staff.

A merry-go-round of key people, not dissimilar to the circus of premiership football managers, is occurring.

Promises of new sprayers and shorter working hours will serve land agents and machinery dealers well.

But the consequence of inflated tenders for land to deliver additional revenue to support the new hire is a dangerous hamster wheel.

Ten years ago, I was involved in a new careers initiative that set about attracting 30,000 new entrants (a shortfall cited in a piece of Lantra research).

Our mission was to attract the best and brightest into farming and agri-food. A huge piece of work over several years, it was much lauded.

Backed by many of the largest farm organisations and agribusinesses (who were able to decouple themselves from a dependence of pedalling their own membership) it was hugely popular with our target audience, the young people.

With the help of Stem ambassadors, it set about bridging perceived barriers to entry that still plague our industry today.

What happened to it? All sectors: dairy, cereals, root vegetable, fresh produce, poultry and red meat were enormously supportive of the platform so long as it was someone else’s money funding the initiative.

They weren’t committed to the need. Moreover, there was huge naivety. No sector could see beyond their own.

Today it sits on a shelf gathering dust as we wallow a decade behind other industries competing for the same talent.

The UK is desperately short of staff. Ask anyone in finance, hospitality, manufacturing, healthcare or marketing. And these are sectors that appeal to young people.

Farming’s current crisis has been compounded by our inability to collaborate. Farming and agri-food need to attract as one destination, not in specialist silos.

In a world without farm support, businesses will need to spread their risk. There will always be demand for sector specialists, be it poultry managers, milking staff or sprayer operators.

But as BPS tapers to zero, the workforce of tomorrow must recognise that we can’t only do the things we studied at college.

Large farms may become larger in a quest for economies of scale. Their key operators have a key that only fits one lock.

But millennials, colloquially referred to as “job hoppers” due to their inability to commit to one job or one career, may be better suited to farming’s regenerative, diversified future.

Diversification requires broadening ones’ skills. Often this will take us out of our comfort zone.

Few modules in my farm business management degree prepared me for renting office space or selling flat whites. Today those skills are arguably more important to my business than knowing how to drive a combine.

To any “job hoppers” considering a diversified farming career, get in touch. I may have just the role for you.

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