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Training the key to workforce woes

MEDIA RELEASE: 1 November 2023

Effective training and competent staff could trump efficiency gains from agricultural technology in solving the industry’s workforce woes, according to new research from Nuffield Australia.

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.

The author of the report, Charles Downie, is a 2021 Nuffield Scholar from Gretna, Tasmania. As part of his scholarship, generously supported by the JM Roberts Charitable Trust and the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, Charles visited over 30 businesses in seven countries.

He 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,” Charles said.

“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 Nuffield 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’.”

Now, having completed his research, 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.

Above: Charles Downie with grape grower and Nuffield Scholar Tom Merwin at his vineyard in Clarksburg, near Sacramento, California

“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, now available, suggests business can have a competitive advantage if they can quickly move new employees from a net cost to a net benefit.

Download Charles’ complete report here:

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