Misconceptions surrounding careers in agriculture continue to challenge and hamper the industry’s image. Instead of adopting a ‘one-size-fits-all’ way of communicating, a smaller more refined approach could be what we need to capture the attention of the next generation. Sarah Todd reports.
Secondary school children have been neglected by the farming and food sectors. This is not just anecdotally, this was the stark finding of research that questioned more than 1,000 12- to 18-year-olds across the UK in June 2018.
Only 22 percent of those asked had ever been given any careers information about jobs in farming of food. It is not just the lack of information our industry should be found guilty of; it is the format in which it is presented.
The research by Linking Environment and Farming (Leaf) clearly shows short 30-second video clips are a teenager’s preferred way of gathering information.
If agriculture’s skills shortages are to be addressed, the industry needs to rethink and get smarter at how it communicates with young people.
Geography lessons seem to be about the only place the modern secondary school pupil might learn the odd bit about farming.
Carl Edwards, Leaf’s director of education and public engagement, says this is an outdated attitude. “What about business studies?” he asks. “Farming often involves multimillion-pound businesses needing a wide range of skills.
We need to upskill teachers so they are aware of what modern farming is all about. “While secondary school children might have had the opportunity to visit a farm attraction, the chances are they will not have been given the chance to learn anything about the reality of farming.
As we all know, real-life farming enterprises are a lot different to the sort of farm attractions open to the public.”
It is a basic example, but Carl, a former assistant headteacher who taught geography in secondary schools, remembers pupils involved in Leaf’s well-respected Facetime a Farmer project being asked to draw a farmer.
He says: “At first they drew the archetypal farmer wearing a straw hat and checked shirt, but by the end of the project when we asked them to do a second picture, their drawings showed a modern farmer holding an iPhone with loads of high-tech kit in the background.
“Teenagers have often been a neglected group in terms of outreach.
However, our research shows they want to know more, care about how their food is produced, hold strong views about environmental issues and are eager to learn more about career opportunities in the sector."
Leaf is hugely proud of its National Food, Farming and Environment Competition, where winning teams of 14- to 16-year-olds from seven schools get to spend a weekend at Llysfasi College, North Wales.
Pupils get hands-on experience of everyday farm tasks, such as milking cows, handling lambs, feeding calves, tractor driving and generally learning about the countryside.
Carl says: “Last year out of the 15 children that took part five, went on to apply to land-based colleges. “Our argument is we do not need massive schemes for 20,000 children at a time.
It is far better for a smaller group to spend half-a-day of quality time on a real farm.
Our work is about impact and that is what smaller projects such as the Llysfasi College scheme have.
“It is very outdated to have a ‘onesize-fits-all’ approach to educating secondary school children about farming. It can be very frustrating when careers in farming are portrayed as being for less academically able.
Like most modern businesses, agriculture has exciting job opportunities at all levels.” Agricultural economist and technologist David Gardner, on behalf of Social Farms and Gardens, was asked to look into the feasibility of a GCSE in agriculture.
“It was debated in the House early last year and turned down,” recalls Dave, a highly regarded semi-retired director, trustee and volunteer in the agricultural sector.
“At the moment, Government focus seems to be on academic qualifications; there just doesn’t seem to be the appetite for something more vocational. “My feeling is we need a mix of people coming into agriculture.
“There seems to be a huge push towards academic qualifications which, in my mind, is wrong.
“Agriculture needs people at all levels, from basic technicians to research graduates. “The word technician is used deliberately.
High-tech machinery means tractor drivers need to be technicians and the modern dairy has cows with two or three sensors, so technician-level skills are needed to be able to upload and process that information.
Modern farming is a high-tech business. “The person coming into farming to spend all day on the end of a muck fork is long gone.
A lot of skills are needed, but recruitment should not be all about the academic.”
There seems to be some differences of opinion within agriculture about whether the focus for recruitment into agriculture is too academic or not academic enough.
The NFU seems to fall into the latter camp, with its education manager Josh Payne criticising the Department of Education for being ‘stuck in a bubble’ that agriculture is not a subject for academically able students.
He says: “All the Government is pushing is apprenticeships, which are doing a great job, but some of agriculture’s problems will only be solved by getting the very brightest secondary school-aged pupils interested.
“There is a dire need for PhD level entrants to tackle big subjects, such as farming and the environment.” Josh adds it remains so important for farming to tune into the way so many young people are ‘fired up by environmental issues’.
He says: “Rather than sitting back and ignoring myths and misconceptions about farming, we need to go out and talk to young people.
Only of 1,000 teenagers 22% have ever been given information about jobs in agriculture
RESEARCH from Leaf shows:
"The person coming into farming to spend all day on the end of a muck fork is long gone"
We need to engage with them and harness this young generation’s desire to make a difference, to get them on side and interested, to talk openly about all the issues they are interested in and get their ideas and feedback.”
The National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs has also been involved in lobbying for agriculture to be promoted more among school children.
The youth movement’s AGRI chairman David Goodwin told Farmers Guardian: “It is disappointing and actually surprising that agriculture is still not often presented as an exciting and dynamic career option.
“There are a lot of stereotypes associated with the industry that need to be broken down and, as an organisation representing the next generation of farmers, we encourage our YFCs to get out into schools to share their experiences of working in the sector and promote the diverse range of skilled opportunities available.”
HERE are a few ideas on how you can get involved:
As part of National Careers Week, held in March, a video was launched showcasing 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.
Farmers Guardian has joined forces with 21 key industry stakeholders from across the farming sector to launch a new campaign, #ThisIsAgriculture, to promote careers in agriculture.
The challenge of recruiting is not a new one. Attracting new blood into the industry has always been an issue, with agriculture rarely sold as an exciting option into schools.
However, with the pace of technological change rapidly widening the skills gap and Brexit looming, the need to drive change within the industry has intensified greatly over recent years.
Building on the learning from the #ThisIsAgriculture survey, this initiative will work to educate the wider world about the wealth of opportunities available within the sector, as well as dispelling common myths about careers in agriculture.
We will also be collaborating with industry bodies and our industry partners to see where we can work together to shape the political agenda, drive educational reform and provide learning resources.
The campaign will also be sharing information with readers about how to attract – and retain – the right staff for farming businesses across the UK.
Visit the series homepage for more information