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Monday, 26 February 2007
Page: 145

Mr ADAMS (4:51 PM) —As I said during the tabling in the House earlier today of the report Skills: rural Australia’s need by the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, a skilled rural workforce is critical to our economic future. It is also important for the survival of rural industries and rural communities in the face of increasing international competition. I think it is evident that the level of education in our agriculture workforce in the past has a low incidence of post-school qualifications, particularly at the tertiary level. Rural workers need to be skilled and there are significant gaps in our capacity to address those shortages.

It was evident through the many submissions and deputations to the committee that we need to address negative perceptions of rural industries. There are positive career prospects available in forestry and agriculture and the many support and research services surrounding those industries. In order for the skills to be developed, the committee realised there was a need to develop some national strategies, such as a national program for rural skills training in schools, a national framework for the reinvigoration of our agriculture colleges, a review of the Australian Apprenticeships scheme with reference to consistency in the funding of FarmBis, scholarships programs and/or HECS exemptions at the higher education level, and pathways that allow for transition from VET to university in the rural skills training and education area. We also need to have a strategy to promote the role of agriculture and forestry in Australian society and in schools. Primary industry careers are not seen as sexy and desirable as there are negative pictures being painted by the presence of long-term drought and long hours of work. There is a drought on and you can generally make a lot more money working in the mines than you can on a farm—so why would anyone want to study agriculture?

The number of agricultural education courses in Australia has been declining for years but there are still students enrolling at universities and colleges around the country in the hope of making a future from the land. A recent ABC program stated that the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology says this area of education has lost its identity, focus and relevance, and needs to be revamped. The institute’s Chair of Education in South Australia, Geoff Thomas, who gave evidence to our committee, has written a discussion paper claiming university courses need to become less specialised, and focused more on people and less on plants and animals.

One of the lecturers in horticulture at Charles Darwin University, Emily Hinds, said there was a perception that horticulture was just glorified gardening. She says it is tough to get people interested in the courses but that there are new career prospects opening up, including in environmental science and in the rehabilitation of mining sites. Her students are looking for jobs in areas like nurseries and landscaping, and many are keen, in changing careers, to spend more time outdoors.

I believe that future careers in the rural sector are an immense challenge and very exciting. So much is changing, and although there are problems there are huge rewards for those who can solve some of those problems. It was this I was trying to address when pursuing the need for vocational education and training to be more responsive to and flexible for the needs of primary industry. Training should provide people with real skills and meaningful qualifications so our young people can take up those challenges with the energy required to problem solve. Young people are prepared to take on the challenges, but they need to have the tools to do so. They also need to have career paths so they can continue learning and training and continue to be rewarded for their work.

In addition to the recommendations for rural skills and training, further recommendations have been made with regard to the regulatory framework for VET, vocational education and training. The Australian Quality Training Framework needs to be revisited to allow greater flexibility in the appointment and accreditation of training instructors, particularly in relation to the recognition of prior skills and competencies, and to make adoption of new training packages and competencies in rural skills faster and easier. That came through in a big way.

Flexibility in courses should ensure that subjects such as hydrology, dam assessment and farm drought proofing are on the agenda as well as animal husbandry. We have gone beyond just dealing with land management; we have to be conscious of sustainability while dealing with the economic side of agricultural industry. We also need to invest in research within rural industries. There needs to be greater certainty in funding research, especially for those with a proven track record.

Developing industries need to be recognised, such as the contribution of the beekeeping industry for Australia’s agriculture. In the past we have exported honey in mass quantities to have it mixed with inferior European product. Tasmania has now proved there is a huge market for our honey labelled as Australian, with its high quality. It is the best in the world. It is something we should put further research into, especially the marketing and ways of overcoming quarantine controls that do not recognise our disease-free status.

Another area in which we have been a strong advocate is that of on-ground services. The Australian government needs to develop, in conjunction with the state and territory governments, a national extension framework to coordinate national extension services throughout Australia and to define the roles of all those involved. A specific extension component in all funding arrangements for research organisations should be provided by the Australian government. This needs to be in addition to, and not at the expense of, research funding.

This report provides a plan for the future of rural skills in Australia. Given the critical nature of the issue, the need to embrace education and training and make changes to VET, the availability and adequacy of research and the provision of extension and advisory services are key areas that need to be addressed if the skills needs of rural Australia are to be met. I believe this report is important. There is a huge gap between the skills available in the regions and those that we should have. This report must not be left to become mouldy on a shelf somewhere. The recommendations are there to be implemented. It does not matter which side of politics one comes from, the problems have to be addressed. So I am recommending the report to the government and any government in waiting.