The Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA) is a research institute at the University of Tasmania specialising in research, development, extension and education to support prosperous, innovative and sustainable agriculture and food sectors in Tasmania.
TIA began in 1997 as a joint venture between the University of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Government, bringing together the human and physical resources of the Tasmanian Government with the scientific research and teaching capacity of the University of Tasmania.
2021 Scholarship winner
Charles Downie from Gretna, Tasmania, received a Nuffield Scholarship supported by the JM Roberts Charitable Trust and the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture. A summary of his report is below.
Effective training and competent staff could trump efficiency gains from agricultural technology in solving the industry’s workforce woes, according to new research. However, the research has found farm business managers and senior staff often lacked the capacity to teach new employees, and the importance of doing so was underappreciated.
Charles Downie visited over 30 businesses in seven countries and said people looking for permanent jobs in agriculture are more likely to have no tertiary education and lack the skills to operate complex equipment and technology.
“Agtech is often seen as a potential solution to some of the labour challenges in agriculture, however this is not entirely accurate. Technology is great at taking over the simple, repetitive tasks, but often fails at the complex tasks. By introducing more technology, agricultural businesses can become more complicated.”
Charles said this harks back to the moment that inspired him to apply for a scholarship when he mentioned to a friend he needed more highly skilled staff.
“His response was that ‘the staff you have are the staff you have – the technology needs to be better’.”
Charles has found that without continued innovation and investment, businesses stagnate.
“Without competent staff we are constrained in our ability to make the most of that investment and grow our businesses. Technology is one vital tool, but the capacity to teach and convey knowledge on how to operate effectively and efficiently is even more important.”
Charles’ research found farm business managers need to clearly analyse and define what information needs to be imparted to new employees to enable them to be productive as quickly as possible. During his extensive travels to countries including the US, Canada and the Netherlands, he also noticed businesses that teach their staff effectively have a competitive advantage, as they can recruit from a wider range of candidates. This contrasts with businesses that require skilled staff immediately.
“In conversations with farmers around the world, one of the most repeated comments was that it is difficult to find skilled staff. Another frequent comment was that it’s too expensive to train someone because they don’t provide any benefit for months. As an employer, there should be a framework for teaching the critical knowledge within a business than minimises that unproductive time.”
The research suggests business can have a competitive advantage if they can quickly move new employees from a net cost to a net benefit.
Watch Charles' presentation here
Download Charles' final report here