Talk of workforce shortage is plentiful in the farming press and agri-social media, but solutions are much harder to find.
Indeed, Farmers Guardian’s front page on October 30, 2020, screamed ‘Lost Labour’, reporting
the Pick for Britain initiative’s disappointing response.
As many readers will know all too well, the problem is not confined to finding seasonal workers.
The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) is currently doing a survey among members to ‘highlight issues when recruiting labour following the announcement by Government that access to foreign labour would be limited’.
RABDF’s previous survey in 2016 found ‘over half of respondents had trouble recruiting staff within the
previous five years’.
In mid-2017, the NFU website reported it had ‘made its case to a Government committee about the importance of accessing a competent and reliable workforce’.
The report adds ‘the committee was told that for farm businesses, continued access to non-UK seasonal and permanent workers on-farm is critical’.
But why is this, particularly with permanent jobs in mind?
Also in FG on October 30, Young Farmer Focus contributor Catherine Hynd offered a perspective with which, I regret to say, my four decades of adulthood as a fellow outsider working in UK agriculture led me to sympathise.
She said: “It is hard for a non-farmer to enter the agri sector, as they are often seen as nobodies.”
Two weeks later, thankfully in contrast, FG columnist Tom Clarke was rather more encouraging.
“If you are new to farming, or want to be – welcome and bravo,” he said. “We need new blood, new ideas, open minds and energy”.
So, is this industry going to validate Einstein’s definition of insanity that it keeps doing the same things while
expecting different results?
We are certainly not short of initiatives, but clearly the problem endures.
Looking for opportunities disguised as problems, I am prompted to look at the impact of coronavirus on employment, or rather unemployment, particularly among young adults.
I wonder whether our industry (I am not entirely disenfranchised) could help this generation who, let’s face it, will be paying the NHS bills, state pension and elderly social care of my age group, including many farmers.
Of course, attracting young adults into farming in big enough numbers is a challenge. Some critical things will need addressing, including working conditions and wages, training and career pathways, and universal adoption of Mr Clarke’s enlightened mantra.
According to Youth Employment UK, we are heading for two million unemployed 16-24 year olds post-coronavirus – double the number in 2011 that arose from 2008’s financial crash.
If farming was to create an industry- wide campaign to showcase its job and career opportunities to attract young adults from all backgrounds, Youth Employment UK founder Laura-Jane Rawlings believes the result could be win-win – good staff for farms and rewarding work for a demographic whose job prospects are being trashed.
But her suggestion carries a note of caution.
“Beware being left behind by other industries,” she adds.
At all the jobs fairs Mrs Rawlings has attended, she says farming was absent, while national campaigns aimed at young adults already exist in engineering, food manufacturing, vehicle maintenance and even opticians.
Indeed, an Association of British Dispensing Opticians initiative with her organisation is well worth a look by farming, with which there are numerous parallels – for example, mainly owner-managed, minimal human resources training, single figure staffing, and unclear or non-existent career paths.
Perhaps the time is right for farming to consider its potential as a ‘community employer’ to help itself and others in equal measure and regain much needed self-esteem in the process.