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What skills do agricultural employers really want?

Technology is going to become more central to even the most traditional roles in agriculture and there is already a shortage of workers with the appropriate skills, according to industry recruitment experts.

Government research shows the skills set of agricultural workers has improved in the past five years, but there are areas where workers are still short of expertise, experience or qualifications.

The UK Commission of Employer Skills (UKCES) survey showed that between 2011 and 2015, the overall number of jobs left vacant in agriculture because of a lack of skills had declined from 28% to 22%. But it also highlighted that a lack of specialist skills or knowledge was still an issue.

Skilled trade shortage

Katie Garner, manager of the BrightCrop cross-industry initiative to inspire talent to choose farming as a career, says there is clearly a need for higher quality recruits in all areas of agriculture. But, she points out, the biggest gap is in the skilled trade areas.

“While we need managers, directors and graduate trainees, the major demand is in the skilled trade sector. For example, jobs like stockmen or combine drivers, where technology is advancing quickly,” she says.

Agriculture and horticulture have almost five times more skilled trade roles (48% of the workforce) than the average for other professions (11%), according to figures provided by the land-based training organisation Lantra.

It is also more difficult to find the right recruits in the agriculture sector than other industry equivalents, adds Ms Garner, because of the perception it is a low-tech career choice.

“It is a big concern because that perception is completely wrong. Technology is booming and we need highly trained, IT-savvy staff to keep us competitive.”

Required qualifications

Ms Garner says that, in particular, the industry needs people coming out of further education at Higher Level 3 Apprenticeship grade – just below degree standard.

And they don’t necessarily require straight horticultural or agricultural management qualifications.

They could have qualifications in technology and engineering, which can be applied in an agricultural context, she says.

Get students engaged

Ms Garner’s points are echoed by Leigh Morris, chief executive of the National Land Based College – a web-based, employer-led organisation that promotes a joined-up approach to education, training, skills and career development.

“Agriculture has the highest perceived technical skills gap compared with other industries and has been named by the government as a priority industry for attention in its Post-16 skills plan,” says Mr Morris.

The concern is not just for jobs where there are shortages now but in the longer term.

“Unless we can get school pupils of today engaged with thinking in terms of a career in our industry we won’t have the workforce coming out of the pipeline capable of using the technology from age 20-plus when they qualify.”

Mr Morris believes the land-based sector must get past the traditional pool of people it draws from and appeal to those beyond farming who have skills that can be adapted.

Communication skills

There is also a need for greater appreciation of the communication skills needed to help businesses collaborate.

Huge difficulties

Richard Self, project manager for Edge Careers – an industry-led initiative that aims to help link employers, young people and training providers – says arable farmers are currently having huge difficulties recruiting the right staff.

“The role of arable worker has changed to what would be better described as crop technician,” he says.

“It is now a mixture of practical knowledge combined with the IT know-how to interpret and act upon swathes of data being produced by equipment. The individual has to be a high-calibre decision-maker.”

The pig and poultry sectors are also demanding better-trained applicants.

“Both production systems have carefully controlled environments with increasingly sophisticated tech to ensure the animals’ welfare.

“Analysing the data and making decisions carry responsibility, as well as taking a lot of skill. Yet these roles are often perceived to be purely manual jobs.”