Staff are the key to any business, but why can farmers, who are also employers, be sometimes reluctant to secure the best team around them? And why is it so important to a business’ bottom line? Clemmie Gleeson finds out more.
As agriculture is continually developing and becoming increasingly technical, lifelong learning will need to be the norm.
But with the pressures of post-Brexit Britain and a forthcoming onset of recovery from a global pandemic, how will the need to upskill those working in the agricultural industry be managed and encouraged? It is no secret much still needs to be done to encourage farming businesses to prioritise investing in their staff’s skills and knowledge and to make that as simple as possible.
Janet Swadling, independent consultant, author of the Swadling Report on workforce development and one of the founder members of the AHDB’s Agricultural and Horticulture Skills Leadership Group (SLG), says: “Frankly we will be left behind if we do not develop new skills.
“Farmers need to continuously update and keep abreast with new information and, without that, some farm businesses are going to struggle.
“Businesses which invest in training and skills tend to be the most successful.
“We will fall behind with productivity and will not be attractive to retain skilled staff and we will not be competitive with other industries like construction.” Richard Longthorp, pig farmer, fellow member of the SLG and long-time advocate of training and ‘professionalisation’ of the industry agrees, but warns of the inevitable sceptism it brings.
He says: “Sometimes farmers say ‘if I train him he might leave’, but investing in an employee’s skills is highly valued by staff in my experience.
“The risk therefore is that if you do not train your staff they will leave and join a business which will.
“As an industry we will fall behind and lose the best and most go-ahead staff.”
Investing in skills can help close the gap between the best and worst performing farming businesses, says Lantra’s Scotland director Liz Barron-Majerik.
She says: “In most sectors there is a big productivity gap between the top 25 per cent and the rest, which is not solely down to size of farm.
One of the big factors is skills.” Training needs to cover advancing technology, but also interpreting resulting data, any bolt-on tech, best practice and so on.
Liz says: “This should trigger a change from agriculture, and many other land-based careers, being perceived as what some people refer to as ‘the destination for the bottom 10 per cent’.
“We do not yet know what Brexit will mean for UK agriculture and/or farming subsidies, but whatever it is it is very likely that upskilling and re-skilling will be key to success.” Richard says many farmers are indeed mostly sold on the benefits of training.
He says: “I believe the general attitude of farmers is pro-training, when they get round to it.
“When I go to meetings and I am promoting training, I never have a farmer saying I was talking rubbish. They say I am right.
“They are genuinely interested in training, but when they get home, despite having the best intentions, they have so much else to do that the skills folder gets pushed down the desk until it falls off the end.” Reluctance to invest or prioritise training can stem from a worry of ‘admitting what you do not know’, adds Liz.
She says: “Going into an environment and admitting what you do not know can be quite hard.
I am heartened by the growth of online delivery, which I think will make a real difference, ranging from threshold or taster courses through to longer courses.
“This gives us a lot of potential to break barriers and it would be great to have more support for that.
“There also needs to be a change in mindshift from thinking of training as a cost to the business rather than an investment leading to safer working and better productivity.
This culture needs to change.”
Richard says: “It seems crazy to me that some farmers willingly spend thousands of pounds on machinery but baulk at spending £500 or £1,000 on training.
It is all about return on investment.
“Upskilling people can mean the difference between profit and loss for a ridiculously small outlay.
In the grand scheme of things it really is not that much.” When it comes to younger people, the trend dictates they are generally very keen to take opportunities to undertake training.
Liz says: “There is absolutely no problem with a lack of enthusiasm among young people wanting to upskill.
“The problem can be that they have fantastic ideas, but no opportunity to take them forward and eventually that enthusiasm dissipates.
“Their ideas need nourishment.
They need ongoing support for ideas and space to try them out and maybe fail or succeed, but ultimately to be listened to.” Janet agrees: “It is perfectly clear in the discussions we have had that youngsters want to be alongside their peers in other industries in terms of having a career route and help in terms of how they can develop.” Feedback from young people has strongly indicated they want a professional and co-ordinated approach to their careers in agriculture, she adds.
Janet says: “That is what they want in the future for skills and training to be.
It is about providing a more structured approach equally ensuring it is accessible.” So where does that leave farmers who are employers and want to get the best out of their staff? Janet says: “At the moment it is not clear to farmers where they would start, how they can ensure they are keeping up to date and how that is recognised.
“We need a much more structured approach which is accessible, efficient and effective.” And that is the fundamental premise behind the AHDB’s SLG, which has engaged with other industry bodies to develop a professional framework for careers in agriculture.
Janet says: “There are lots of training opportunities out there already, but it can be difficult and time-consuming to find information and make decisions.
“There is no shortage of activity, but it is very fragmented.
There are lots of players, which does not make it easy for the farmer.
In most industries there are formal frameworks for people to acquire skills and continue with their professional development, and a lot of clarity about what basic skills are needed in various different areas.” Lessons from other countries, including Canada and Australia, which have developed similar frameworks, were all being learned from in the development of something similar in this country, Janet adds.
“That is particularly important as trade becomes even more pertinent in a post-Brexit world.” Richard wants farming business to have access to an ‘interface’ for skills and training.
His vision includes not just information on specific training opportunities ‘at the click of a mouse’, but also case studies and a return on investment calculator.
He says: “We need good case studies of what people have done and achieved and be able to demonstrate that if you invest X in training you are likely to get a return of Y.
It is notoriously difficult to do that, but does not mean we should not try.” Richard gives the example of the Professional Manager Development Scheme course run by AHDB.
Richard was involved in development of the course, which was originally for managers in the pig industry, but has since been extended for other sectors.
He says: “At the end, participants give presentations and one area is the benefits they have accrued to their business over the 18 months of the course.
“There is some serious money being made or saved; far more than the cost of the course itself.
We need more real-life examples like that, which farmers will take more notice of than an academic.”
Documenting and evidencing skills and experience was also an essential part of this, Richard says.
“Such a lot of training is informal peerto-peer with no qualification or ticket.
You cannot say they are unskilled, but they are not professional because they cannot demonstrate that competence.” A framework which recognises skills and knowledge gained through experience would therefore be useful, says Liz.
“There is a huge wealth of experience in the sector which is not recognised like the formal training structures.
Such a structure needs to be flexible enough for the people you are doing it for and also integrated with traditional structures.
“I think there is a real need for the industry to define what good looks like, then have a way of training people to those standards and then hence being able to recognise excellence.” All farming businesses need to take note, adds Richard.
“As someone said to me recently, every business is either growing, declining or changing, and that is a driver for the need to upskill.”
As part of National Careers Week #ThisIsAgriculture showcases agriculture at the cutting edge of modern technology and at the forefront of innovations in key areas, such as IT, forensics, engineering, automation and design.