The Covid-19 pandemic has not only disrupted supply chains, but it has also impacted on the industry’s workforce and its training needs. Hannah Binns reports on what has changed and the positive framework it has created going forwards.
Covid-19 has shaken the industry’s approach and attitudes to training and upskilling, new data from Farmers Guardian’s This is Agriculture survey has found.
The survey was aimed at employers and employees to better understand their thoughts on the need to upskill and the training opportunities available, with balanced representation from all sectors across the UK.
Attracting 359 responses, it found a clear change in training needs and attitudes from employees and employers due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but reflected the job market had remained relatively positive.
In fact, 82 per cent of employers continued advertising vacancies throughout the pandemic, with 84 per cent of farm businesses and 80 per cent of ancillary businesses stating they had not withdrawn job adverts.
Claire Morgan, a UK and international recruitment expert at Agricultural Recruitment Specialists, said she had experienced its busiest year in eight years.
Ms Morgan said: “With the candidate market so buoyant, it is a fantastic time for employers to secure candidates who may not have come to the market had it not been for the impact of Covid-19.
“In more than 60 per cent of cases, we have found that on placement of a candidate and the employer realising the quality of talent, they have opened up other vacancies to capture the talent they may not have done previously.” Ms Morgan added while the company tended to attract more permanent, full-time vacancies, clients had been reaching out for seasonal vacancies as the impact of Brexit had resulted in their return labour not being available.
She said: “A definite trend we are seeing is that employers are more open to candidates requiring a visa to work and supporting this to gain the right talent and experience.”
But like many other industries, agriculture was not exempt from furlough, according to the data.
Forty-eight per cent of ancillary employers stated they had furloughed staff compared to 11 per cent of farming employers.
Breaking it down into company size, it seems employees who worked for medium- to large-sized businesses had been or had colleagues placed on furlough, with 33 per cent for businesses employing 10-50 staff, 18 per cent for 51-100 staff, 33 per cent for 101-200 staff and 17 per cent for 201-500 staff.
In comparison, only 14 per cent of employees working with 10 or fewer colleagues had been or had colleagues furloughed.
Training opportunities were also slashed, according to the data, with 34 per cent of farming employees stating they had training cancelled.
Yet the figure nearly doubled for those employed in ancillary industries at 63 per cent, indicating that training is perhaps more formalised and ‘out-of-office’ for this sector.
Richard Charles, AGCO aftersales customer care and training manager for UK and Ireland, said: “Our training was very much face-to-face instructor-led, where dealer employees would attend an AGCO training facility.
“We have managed to switch to virtualbased learning across the company, but this differed across markets as some were less affected than others.
“In the UK and Ireland, we were only able to offer virtual instructor-led training [VILT], due to our market’s leadership decision and that of the UK Government,as the safety of our staff and dealers was a top priority.” He added employees had the opportunity to attend more training modules than he had ever seen before.
Mr Charles said: “This may be due to the fact that not only were we in a remote working situation, but before the pandemic we had made the decision to transition into new IT and collaboration platforms.” David Fisher, head of industry partnerships at Lantra, said the company had seen lower levels of training delivery due to restrictions on travel and social distancing, which meant courses took place with reduced numbers and was ‘for locals’ only.
Mr Fisher said: “There has still been good levels of demand, with the most safety-critical operations taking place.
“The pandemic has seen more interaction with Lantra’s e-learning training, which can be used to minimise time away from the workplace, with learners still benefiting from instructor-led delivery and interaction at a time best suited for them, before going into a training centre to be assessed.” Mr Fisher added Lantra saw the biggest growth in its e-learning training for the safe use of pesticides, which has led to an online assessment for the HSErecognised level two award in the safe use of pesticides.
He said: “This fully online route has been really well received and shown to us that this model works well for knowledge-based areas.
“We have also developed free courses in areas including mental Health in agriculture and Covid-19: health and safety guidance in the workplace, which have seen good levels of uptake in recent months.”
But while training may have been cancelled, only 14 per cent of ancillary employees said they had gained no skills as a result to changes to working practices caused by Covid-19, with online use (17 per cent), face-to-face meeting alternatives (22 per cent) and technology (13 per cent) highlighted as new skills developed.
Yet while 11 per cent of farming employees listed health and hygiene as a new skill developed, 51 per cent of farming employees said they had gained no skills due to changes in working practices.
This could reflect the nature of farming itself, with farmers often working in isolation in remote areas, so it seems unlikely the Covid-19 pandemic changed their day-to-day farming operations, hence there was no need to develop new skills.
Similarly, new skills linking to health and hygiene could reflect a cautious approach to the pandemic, with an awareness for limited rural resources, as well as the impact the virus could have on their business.
Businesses also took different approaches regarding their training budget during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.
Fifty-four per cent of farming employers said they had increased their budget for upskilling workers, compared to 64 per cent of ancillary employers, with the rest opting to decrease these funds.
Thirty-two per cent of businesses which increased their budgets cited staff motivation and investment as the main driver, with 27 per cent citing development needs
Mr Charles said: “It is always important to keep upskilling and developing our employees and the pandemic has certainly showed me the need to regularly ensure my team is happy with the tools we provide.” But 28 per cent of businesses which said they had decreased budgets cited the negative impact of Covid-19 on the business, as well as profitability (24 per cent) and fewer employees (7 per cent).
Looking forward, 76 per cent of ancillary employers and 74 per cent of farming employers said they predicted this trend to continue.
Mr Charles said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons and smaller bite-sized e-learning modules and guides which can be consumed at leisure have been key.
“But while technology has been great and very helpful, it cannot replace the human face-to-face element we took for granted, so we will need to find a balance between using technology and having real conversations.
“We hope to resume face-to-face training in quarter three or four of 2021 to meet huge demand, but VILT will still be on offer in the future as it can save time and money for a dealer.”
He added employers can support upskilling employees in the future by ensuring there are little and often courses to consume and make training a part of the working week or month.
Mr Charles said: “They could also educate managers to ensure regular goals are set for training consumption and auto assign courses to individuals or groups with a time stamp for completion.”
A total of 78 respondents were in permanent jobs and half have been in their current position for five years or more.
Those who said they worked in ancillary jobs tended to work for five to 10 years (21 per cent) and 20 per cent were in their first or second year.
There was a drop off at two to three years, which could suggest after a period of employment they take stock of their career and seek out new challenges.
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