As the average age of the UK’s farmers hits 59, Lauren Dean looks at the New Zealand model to find out how it attracts the best and brightest young talent into its agricultural industry.
Young people have often been widely drawn upon for their enthusiasm and innovative ideas but continued struggles with misconceptions and outdated perceptions have resulted in a widely misunderstood image of agriculture.
With questions mounting about whether young people have the right work ethic to face a ‘challenging’ day’s work, or how out of touch they may be with farms if they did not grow up on one, the industry has been left struggling to tackle the ever-growing problem of who will be left to feed the UK’s growing population.
Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom recently said she would like to see ‘young British folk have a fabulous career in food and farming’, adding she hoped the concept of a career in food production was going to be ‘much more appealing going forward’.
But in order to better engage with and encourage young people, Andy Somerville, chief executive of the Primary Industries Capability Alliance (PICA) in New Zealand, said it was time farmers went ‘beyond the usual pool’ to attract highly-skilled youngsters into the agricultural sector.
He said: “We believe a lot of potential candidates get put off by some stereotypes before they even get started.
“But young people coming into the primary industries are in a good position to tackle the big challenges of sustainably producing and marketing innovative, high-quality primary products and marketing them globally.
“We say to them, ‘you grow the primary industries and we will grow you’.”
Research warned of some 19,000 UK students choosing to study agriculture at university being masked by the 280,000 school leavers applying to do business-related degrees, despite a 4.6 per cent increase in agricultural student numbers last year.
But Mr Somerville said these statistics should not concern the industry, despite the difficulty to attract talented youth to an industry which is regarded by some as uninteresting, hard work, or not for intelligent people.
He highlighted a much wider basis of roles which could interweave into the agricultural sector and advised farmers to take advantage of the people who were highly skilled in other areas.
It was simply a case of better marketing strategies and employing more people with a higher average level of qualification, he said.
In New Zealand, the agricultural industry was said to need 50,000 new skilled workers by 2050, and 220,000 to replace ‘the natural ageing out’.
“We are keen to tell people there are plenty of other roles across the supply chain, including researchers, engineers, marketers, food safety and biosecurity specialists,” Mr Somerville said.
Young people in New Zealand are encouraged in their teenage years. NZ Young Farmers employs field officers to go into schools and run initiatives, such as TeenAg clubs, GetAhead experience days, a rural mentor programme and experience days.
“We need engineers to develop new technologies for production and processing of primary products, and engineering is a key profession through the supply chain – from sophisticated harvesting equipment to refrigeration technologies,” Mr Somerville added.
“Understanding product and market development is also key and this is a great opportunity for young people as they are so digital-savvy and can help companies make the most of new channels.”
Andy Somerville said the primary industries in New Zealand were increasingly faced with challenges because of the increasingly urbanised population, but he said the ways in which to incorporate innovative development was through better communication.
“Part of our challenge is to nurture connections. This is the real starting point.
“We need our young people to see what the primary industries really do and how valuable this is for our country then they will start to see there are possible opportunities for them to be part of it.”
Leigh Morris, chief executive of the National Land Based College, Kenilworth, Warwickshire, echoed the comment and said attracting new young talent to the UK farming industry was a ‘challenge’ but could be achieved by promoting collaboration and the benefits of all areas.
She said: “The skills agenda is massively important to our agricultural industries, from inspiring young people to attracting talent into our sector, training at all levels and ongoing professional development and knowledge exchange.
“There is not a single task which cannot be tackled better with more skill and knowledge and a key challenge now is how we best deliver on this agenda to meet the needs of the UK countryside.”
A sister brand to the Primary Industries Capability Alliance is GrowingNZ, an alliance of food industry organisations, training providers and Government agencies.
GrowingNZ specialises in a range of jobs targeted at young people and branded as ‘cool roles’. These include jobs in the supply chain, research, international trade, production, gardens, food, marine sector, livestock management, advisers and harvesting.
Mr Somerville said: “We have developed material which will appeal to students and teachers to pass on good messages and stories.
“We are getting a good response to using the term growing – and we tell them this means many things, such as growing opportunities, wealth, markets and people, as well as growing plants and animals.”
One area of success Mr Somerville hoped to expand on was the need for science graduates in the sector.
GrowingNZ has developed material which appeals to science teachers in a range of forums because the primary industries have ‘good roles’ for science graduates.
“It is a work in progress,” Mr Somerville said. “The challenge is to get people to see past the stereotypes.”