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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
01/02/2012
Higher education and skills training for agriculture and agribusiness

BLEWITT, Mr Arthur William, Chief Executive Officer, AgriFood Skills Australia

WILSON, Mr Robert, General Manager, AgriFood Skills Australia

Committee met at 09:10

CHAIR ( Senator Back ): The committee will now commence its inquiry into higher education and skills training to support future demand in agriculture and agribusiness in Australia. I welcome representatives from AgriFood Skills Australia. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. The committee has your submission, for which I thank you. I invite you to make an opening statement, at the conclusion of which the committee would be keen to put questions to you.

Mr Blewitt : We welcome the opportunity to contribute to the inquiry. This is an important activity and, as you probably know, this is a critical time for our industry. There will be enormous global opportunities for the next 10 years, with great markets, great commodities and great products. Importantly, one of the constraints will be the availability of suitably high-level skilled people throughout the industry.

We do a national environmental scan annually, which is a contemporary assessment of what industry wants. In our industry we have 880,000 workers across agriculture and food, with about 300,000 in agriculture. Of those, about one-third of the agricultural workers—that is, about 100,000 people—will turn 65 in 2018, so there is a hitch point there. About half of our research scientists will also retire at that time. That is a great concern to us, principally because of the drop in interest in agricultural science as a degree. Our industry has grown up on good science. We continue to need it. With the sophistication of science coupled with globalisation, it is even more important that we have good science connections. We would like to talk through that.

The industry is changing dramatically and there is a lot of discussion now about structural adjustments for other industries, such as the car industry. We think agrifood and agriculture particularly has been changing like that for many years—silently but quietly. Importantly now there is a new ownership model coming in, with lots of overseas investors—banks and corporates—and of course there are 180,000 enterprise family based farms. That has introduced some new models. They are moving with their feet. They cannot get the right people. There is a lot of contracting being adopted by those more sophisticated businesses. There is a contractor model out there not unlike the mining model, where they will buy people at the top of their skills, in terms of their peak capability, employ them as contractors and importantly run a lot of those businesses. So a move in that direction has advantages. One is that you get very good skills and you get them when you want them at the capability that they have. The disadvantage is that it does 'disincentivise' careers for young people moving into agriculture because employers are aiming at more mature and well-trained people.

Having said that, we are pushing for vocational training in schools right through to higher education, and we give a big emphasis in agrifood to higher education in agriculture and people getting degrees that suit the industry needs. In our submission you will see that, whilst there is a significant decline in a number of degrees in the traditional areas, particularly agricultural science, there is an uptake in New-Age courses that students want to do and that industry wants them to do. These include natural resource management, biodiversity and business skills. In our discussion with universities we have encouraged them to give ready articulation between vocational training and higher education, and importantly that has now happened, particularly in the regional universities, which are more keen to get students than some of the big eight. We are also pushing and getting some acceptance of this document, which gives a pretty good indication of emerging industry needs and requirements for skills. We now share that information with universities, which, in three cases, are trying to absorb some of that material into their agricultural science degrees. So, if you are doing a Bachelor of Rural Science degree at UNE, they are talking to us about what other components you might put in it to make it more attractive to both employers and students, such as business skills and sustainability, as we mentioned. So they are happening.

I think universities now—probably for the first time that I have seen for a while—are interested in talking to us about what industry wants. They have a practicality in offerings now, particularly regional universities, so that they get students and the students get what they want and industry gets what they want, and obviously that builds a relationship. Some of those universities are using agrifood, including UWS and Sydney, which is a large one, to do that and also to get links to industry which we are helping them with. So that is a nice match. Also, as we do in vocational training, we try to get in with vocational providers to deliver what industry wants. That has fairly much been achieved to some extent, although vets are fairly slow in adopting. We are now trying to do that with universities as well to ensure that they have the capability to listen to industry. It helps them, it helps students and obviously it helps our industries do better. So they are some of the things we do.

The other thing—always of great concern with our industries—is about having decent jobs. You can have students train from vocational training and you can have them in education, but unless there is a job out there that satisfies them they will not apply. We are pushing for two things: creating decent, well-designed jobs, in agriculture and agrifood, and also becoming what we call employers of choice—being a good employer, someone you would want to work for. That is very important to young students, who have so many options. I am on the board of the Primary Industry Centre for Science Education, and this is looking at young students to persuade them to go in to do primary industry as a tertiary qualification rather than medicine or something else. We met with 20 of those in Canberra a little while ago and we asked them what they would need to go into the primary industries to work, and they said they would need a good job. Those people, while they are in year 11 and 12, are still looking to have a job to go to and they will switch their choices depending on the availability. So it is good jobs and good employers—attractive employers who know what they are doing. That means that they know how to treat people, how to engage them, how to let them grow and contribute all their skills to the job. So they are some of the issues.

The other areas is that we are developing a national strategy. We have been engaged by what used to be called the Primary Industries Ministerial Council—I think it is now the standing committee on primary industries—through DAFF to develop a national skills and workforce development strategy for the country. This is not AgriFood Skills doing it; it is actually for the nation, and about agriculture in particular. That is being led by DEEDI in Queensland and the Western Australian equivalent in primary industry, so they are two key states which we are working with. DEEDI is the lead agent and we are the broker doing the deal and the actual development of the document. But that will also set a scene for very strong agricultural pursuits, with the target being government, industry leadership, and also communities and regions.

The other thing I should say is that we put a lot of our effort into regional Australia, and you have probably heard that from us before. We have run an outstanding exercise in Narrabri in central New South Wales, where the community and industry jointly worked together on a cross-industry basis between mining, agriculture and retail. That has now been going for three years, and we are now concluding that exercise. It has shown tremendous characteristics. One is that it helps those groups select a job to track people across those diverse industries rather than just to agriculture, because it would not work. You have miners such as Rio, BHP and others in the same room with retailers and agriculturalists and, importantly, they are making decisions as a region. The success of that has led to thinking about the design of jobs and doing business training for employers to ensure they are capable and better employers. Importantly, that has now stretched out to Moree, Gunnedah, Armidale and other places, because they see that as an attractive model. The Mayor of Narrabri and others are on the committee, so that is a really powerful group that sets the scene, I think, for regional Australia, and we have put a proposition to government and are revisiting that now to get that adopted across each of the states. It is a low cost: 250 grand a year to have someone on site that drives it with local committees. There is a committee of 18 there which has been intact for three years, because they get more out of it in terms of growing their industry and their region and we obviously provide them with technical advice and have a person on the ground.

I think that is probably where I would leave it. I would be happy to answer questions, but the mission of AgriFood Skills is to ensure that they have sustainable businesses, meeting the rapidly changing needs not only in structural adjustment but in the way we market, the way we sell and the impact of the internet on training, which is quite profound, and importantly to cross the diversity of our activities, which gives us a fairly good space and a good knowledge of what is going on out there.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator GALLACHER: Your submission notes that there is a potential risk of depletion beyond critical mass between 2013 and 2018. Can you just elaborate on that—flesh that out a bit.

Mr Blewitt : Sorry?

Senator GALLACHER: There is a potential risk between 2013 and 2018 that Australia's regional workforce will become depleted beyond critical mass.

Mr Blewitt : Simply because of ageing and also retirements. A third of the agriculture workforce will turn 65 in that period; half of our scientists will retire in that period. We do not see any way at the moment to attract others to replace them, and that is our key concern. Obviously the stuff we do is around developing, attracting and retaining young people to go there and keeping existing workers there, which is also an issue, and of course there is the competition that they have with the resources industry for good people. Interestingly, as you are probably well aware, farmers are very attracted to miners because they are good operators, good managers and good decision makers. The reason we are working with miners in Narrabri is to share that issue and help us to help them. There is another program we have going there, and in fact it has been successful in Western Australia. We did some work in Morawa in the wheat belt. During the drought a lot of the wheat farmers there were dependent on mining jobs for six months of the year to retain their existing activities. So we are looking at that, but we are also looking at pools of labour in the areas where you can attract a pool of labour. It is not just high level skills that are important. I also met with some cattle men in Rockhampton a few months ago and they said, 'It's great for you guys to talk about high-level skills and technology and genetics—we want that—but we still want people to load our cattle on trucks and to round them up and stuff like that.' So I think there are those two bits, but certainly the focus is principally on making attractive jobs and secondly on pushing people to get high-level qualifications to meet contemporary needs.

Senator GALLACHER: Just in provision of skills for the agricultural sector, what role does the CSIRO play these days?

Mr Blewitt : We have put a lot of effort in to CRCs and RDCs because we think, and they think, there is a role for paraprofessionals—that is, diplomas—to help with the adoption and extension of research. One of the CRCs we work with closely indicated that they had about $100 million worth of research outcomes sitting on their shelves. The issue was how you get that to farmers, woolgrowers or whatever it is and dialogue those in a way. CSIRO has the same. I spent a lot of my career in CSIRO, and I think that was the issue we had there. CSIRO scientists participate in those CRCs. But that is a real challenge for us: to make sure that we can get acceptance that you do not have to have a degree to actually help with the extension of research, because there are not enough people out there with that. I think that is the challenge we are putting up. But CSIRO has been compatible, particularly on the food side—food technology and innovation. CSIRO scientists were involved with us in our planning processes. We run sustainability workshops with them and they contribute strongly, so they are certainly into that space, particularly, and they also work in agriculture through the CRC process with us.

Senator GALLACHER: Do you think they should do more?

Mr Blewitt : We would always like everyone to do more, but I think there is a recognition now that there are problems with doing science in its own right, or doing agricultural science in its own right, without a broader understanding of the rest of the supply chain. It is important that they know. I think CSIRO is picking up on that. The nature of science has changed dramatically, simply because you just cannot focus on one area without understanding the rest of the supply chain. You cannot just focus on biodiversity unless you understand the production side of it. Dr Jim Peacock, who is the former Chief Scientist and was chief of plant industry in CSIRO for many years, was talking through that recently with us: that contemporary science requires the diversity of thought both across the spectrum, with what all components of it can do, and through partnerships. You cannot do enough on your own, and I think that is what we try to do. Certainly CSIRO has appreciated our involvement in getting more closely involved in the broader job front with industry, particularly the food industry, rather than just isolating themselves out away of that. So I think that is valuable.

Senator GALLACHER: My only knowledge really is just observations of, say, the South Australian grain industry and things like that. It is quite true that a lot of those people have sought work in mines for six months of the year and then come back for the harvest. Is it true that the business and the peaks of labour are cyclical—obviously you do not employ people for the full year—and that there is a requirement for labour for harvest or vintage, or whatever it may be? If you throw in the breaking of the drought, but before that the long periods of drought where the labour requirements were possibly lower, has that impacted on your statistics at all?

Mr Blewitt : It has indeed. The other issue is a lot of talk about shortages. I saw a release yesterday that said we have 100,000 vacancies out there. We probably have, but, if you just think about the composition of those vacancies, you would have a whole lot of seasonal workers, a whole lot of casuals, a whole lot of backpackers and a whole lot of people in jobs and then higher level business managers. So, if you break that down, we think there is probably a real job requirement for about 10,000 to 20,000 workers. The other bits are satisfied by the contractors I mentioned earlier, where people are now opting for that. That is obviously skills. Secondly, a lot of work is done by seasonal labour. It is all important, but you just need to segregate them a bit more clearly, rather than just talking about 100,000 lots, because we cannot do much about the casual stuff. We are doing a bit of work with SkillsOne, which is a body that looks after the internet, on moving the Harvest Trail model to include casual labour so that you can get some schedule in that process to get it structured—but they seem to survive.

So it is those components. We focus, obviously, on getting people into the jobs, but if we can help the other way we will do that as well. Right from the start, we are doing a lot of work in vocational training in schools to get kids interested early so that they might think about agriculture, which they do not, typically, unless they are jolted into doing so at the school level. People tell us it should be happening at years 4, 5 and 6. We are doing it at about years 9 and 10 because we cannot get to that stage. We do all of those things—and similarly with the PICSE model—to try and entice people to think about agriculture as an alternative option.

Senator GALLACHER: What is the Indigenous participation rate, and are there any programs to elevate that or encourage that, particularly in areas where there are obviously people?

Mr Blewitt : That is a very important one and of great interest to us. In fact, this week we have one of our managers in Katherine running a program. It is really focusing not so much on getting them into jobs but on mentorship and coaching. There was some Western Australian work done about three years ago with the mining industry to get them into mining companies. The only way it worked was when you gave them a coach to help them stay there, think about the job and also talk through some issues that they confronted. We are doing that with 25 people in Katherine this week, showing them the skills of doing a job, working, the ethics of work and all that and, importantly, linking it to a coaching arrangement whereby you have someone to call on for the first three to six months to help you sustain yourself. The retention rate of that in jobs for Indigenous people is about 80 per cent. The normal retention rate is much lower than that.

It varies between states. In the Northern Territory obviously there would be a higher proportion of Indigenous people; I think it is about 30 per cent. But, more broadly, across the country I think we employ about seven or eight per cent as part of our workforce.

Senator GALLACHER: I did hear that there was a proposal to export camels to the Middle East and that the Indigenous people, particularly in those areas, were probably the people best suited to handle those things, load them onto trucks and the like. Is that a skill set that is out there—loading cattle, loading camels? Do you go out and try and educate people into that workforce?

Mr Blewitt : It is. Also, we were in Darwin about a year ago, and one of the things that the Indigenous group there as well as the department of education put to us was that they were trying to start up community businesses. They were talking about sustainable vegetable gardens and rounding up camels, donkeys and wild pigs, I think, looking at ways they could harvest those. We think it is a pretty tough call, but they have certainly got the skills, whether or not they can make it commercial. I think they were even talking about having a small abattoir around a couple of communities. That is quite complex because of the sophistication of skill needs in abattoirs and the management and regulatory processes, but they are looking for ways to create businesses that are located near their communities. We have ongoing discussions about that. I think there are ways to do it and we will help where we can, but it depends a lot on what their motivation is and also how complex it is. We talk closely to government about that.

Senator RHIANNON: I missed some of your opening remarks, so I am sorry if I am asking about territory you have already covered. We often hear about the challenges people face in finding work in rural areas, often because of the lack of other services and what I suppose you would call cultural opportunities. I was interested in your commenting on any thought that has been given to that. Obviously I appreciate that it is quite a broad question. I would also like to explore with you the issue of pay rates and job security because they also seem to be factors that result in young people coming to the cities and coastal areas.

Mr Blewitt : The Narrabri model I talked about has probably generated a lot of this material you have got. There are a few criteria. One is that we try to get families to regions. It is a bit like fly in, fly out. If you go out on your own, you come back; and, secondly, you do not stay there for too long, you might stay there for 18 months. The ultimate aim is to get families to go there and to get businesses to go there. Obviously, as well as people, you want businesses to go there. One of the issues about families—and the Narrabri people did a review about this—is that you have got to find jobs for the spouses as well. It is no use just bringing in the male or female partner to be the local shire engineer unless you can get a job for their spouse. So they are now looking for that. Secondly, they demand the same sorts of facilities and cultural capabilities that you have in Sydney or Melbourne. It is sometimes difficult to replicate, but that is the expectation. The three issues are spouse jobs, student education and, importantly, community activities.

We know it works in Narrabri and those communities. We think that it is a viable model for communities with over 10,000 people and communities that typically work fairly well together with their neighbours. In communities smaller than that, or more disparate or isolated, that model will not work. So I think that is one of the issues. All of those things are pretty much replicated. Their desire for jobs is the same as anyone else's, and their desire for accommodation, education, support and community activities is strong. As I said, it depends on the size. If you have got a community of 40,000 people—like Dubbo, Orange, Bathurst and similar places in Victoria and elsewhere—they sustain themselves and they have enough oomph to create all those activities. It is the ones that are on the margins—anything below 10,000—that we think are quite hard. Narrabri, for example, has about 10,000 people but, importantly, it has three or four communities close by—Moree and others—that add to the dimension of that.

Senator RHIANNON: I notice that more 457 workers are coming into more of these areas. Do you attribute that to a whole range of factors? Is pay one of them, and the issue of job security?

Mr Blewitt : I think it is. Bear in mind that we have got 180,000 farmers out there running small enterprises. Often they are on their own with a family venture, and obviously that is why they mostly rely on contract labour these days to do their business. Importantly, pay is an issue. We talk the talk in that we say you need to be a good employer, create attractive and challenging jobs, and offer competitive rewards. That is the ideal. Those that are capable of doing that do that and do it very well. You can see the companies that really flourish in that sort of environment. The others struggle. Importantly, I do not think you are going to get the people you want unless you pay them adequately. There is a bit of a difference in the regions in terms of costs and other things which impact on this. You probably do not need a Sydney wage but you do need to have some reflection of that.

The other thing we talk about is: 'Why don't you think about a package rather than just money. 'Why don't you think about the farmhouse you are giving them free and the use of the farm ute to drive the kids to school. Think about that.' Certainly we are trying that at Narrabri and they are thinking of offering that. In fact, one wheat farmer there offered someone 100 hectares to play with as they like—to grow their own crops and do what they like with it. Those are the sorts of incentives they can offer. It does not cost them much but, importantly, it does allow you to keep very good people. Pay is an issue but I think there are other ways to handle it. The differentials between living out there and living here are getting narrower, but that is an issue as well.

Senator RHIANNON: I think you just mentioned that you found that, in those areas where there are award wages and good conditions, they have greater workforce retention. Is that how you put it?

Mr Blewitt : I do not know the answer to that but I think the big retention issue is around the differential between what we can pay, even if we paid the full award, and what others are offering.

Senator RHIANNON: I ask that because I am wondering whether, if that was the case, any assessments have been made of that. It would be very informative. We all have our own anecdotal experience. My question really was: has there been any study to make that assessment of how to best retain this workforce?

Mr Blewitt : Certainly the work we do indicates that if they have a good job then that is the first thing. People will stay in a job if they like it, if they are growing in it and, importantly, if they are seeing some investment in their development. We have been fairly hostile to some of our industries which said, 'We just want this person to come in and work in the dairy, work in the dairy and work in the dairy.' We have had others say to us, 'We've got talent, but they never let us near or let us understand the business we're in. Why don't we get involved in discussing markets, prices or whatever?' So we are putting that out. One of the things you can do is that if you create a good job that gives them challenges and gives them a chance to contribute and learn then you have a much better chance of holding them. So I think money is important, but it is probably two or three down the track from the top end of it.

Senator RHIANNON: I just want to move on to the issue of the image, because one of the key issues is about attracting more people to undertake courses and how we can ensure that that is ongoing. Some of the industry submissions recognise a stereotypical and poor image of the agrifood industry and have said that that needs to be addressed. I was just interested in how the industry image is often listed as a high priority in many industry reports, quite separate from what we are talking about here. I think of that and then think about what is going on with some of the big supermarket chains, with the extraordinary shift in recent times—you are even seeing it to some extent with McDonald's—where they are talking about how they go about their crops, the welfare of the animals and those sorts of ethical issues. It is not just of interest to the consumers; it is often of real interest to people who have an interest in pursuing this type of work. So I was just wondering how you see this issue of image and how it should be responded to.

Mr Blewitt : There are some complex issues there. Certainly industry image is a key focus of ours. As we discussed before, young people determine their journey depending on what is on offer, how attractive it is to them and how they can grow in it, so we are doing a lot of work with that. But I think a lot of that is about whether you are a good employer and talk it up rather than talk it down—we have a habit of doing the latter. The issue around ethics is not just about welfare now; it is more than that. It is ethics, it is understanding and it is that holistic sort of approach. An enormous amount of energy goes into that.

I think we also discussed recently the amount of internet learning that goes on. People are not doing courses, but they are pulling down lots of information by the day and by the hour, particularly the younger generation, in how they are running their business. I think that is a great education. We are fairly critical of some of the public providers—the TAFEs and others—because obviously they are driven by markets and we obviously have a lot of thin markets. So we are looking for far more flexibility in the delivery of courses, if you like, rather than qualifications programs. A lot of our people do not need full qualifications, but they do need skills and they need adaptability and capability to move from one sort of activity to another.

I think one of the things about the large retailers is that they do demand a strong supply chain compliance. If you are going to be in that supply chain, you need to understand the track and both sides of it. I recently saw the regulatory requirements of an abattoir for dealing with a producer, and it went to 28 pages, including having an assessment of your dog done regularly and, if it gets ill, having a vet see it as a matter of course, not as a matter of requirement. So they are issues that they are across, because they have to be if they are going to stay in business. I think the bigger ones and the merging of those can handle it better because it is expensive, but certainly the smaller producers are going to have to keep up to stay in business. So we give them a lot of support, but a lot of it is cultural. A lot of it is changing the way you do business and also thinking about your product from farm gate through to table and all the various mixes of that.

Senator RHIANNON: Thanks very much for that. My recollection when I read your submission was that the issue of promoting animal welfare principles did not really come through that strongly, so I was interested because you have spoken about it quite clearly there. We are addressing here the issue of education and training, and that is just one aspect of it, but I would be surprised if people did not agree that it is something that is becoming increasingly important to many people. So I was just wondering: did you feel that that was lacking there, and is there a lack of understanding in the industry about how to take this forward and integrate it into the work?

Mr Blewitt : To answer that last question first, I do not think there is a lack of understanding. I think they know they have to do it; the issue is how. I am involved in one of the DAFF animal welfare committees. We work closely with them on what is happening and we try to stay a step in front. The issue is that all of the training packages have now been updated to include animal welfare aspects, and we update those through a continuous improvement process. That is the formal bit. The next bit is to ensure that they get delivered in training courses and that the people delivering them understand. That is what we are doing now. We are making sure that the contemporary training package meeting all the changes that are happening is reflected in the training that is delivered on the ground.

I think industry, the peak industry bodies and their regulatory bodies, are doing a lot of work. Other groups that do a lot of work in this area are the landmarks and the elders, who put out a lot of material on their expectation because they are handling stock and they carry some responsibility as well. There are good things happening. There is a lot of work to do and there is a lot of education to go on. But, at the end of the day, people change and they have to. If you are going to sell products into the marketplace—and that is what they are trying to do now—it is a matter of how, it is a matter of delivering more flexible training and courses, as I mentioned, and also looking to update people. You just cannot go and do a qualification now, whether it is a degree or anything else, and expect that you do not need to be updated. There are a lot of internet groups working out. There are a lot of community groups around chemicals, for example, and chemset arrangements. They tend to do things on that front. But, importantly, there is a lot of activity going on. They have to stay in front of it. I think a lot of the younger people are staying that way through the internet. That is probably not an entirely legitimate way to do it but, importantly, we have started. The capacity is there to do it. There are a bunch of compliance points along the way to ensure you do, and we are helping where we can through education and formal training systems and also encouraging groups to share information between themselves.

CHAIR: Mr Wilson, can I go to you. The role of this committee is to make recommendations as part of its report. What more do you believe can be done at the primary and secondary school level to put agriculture, agribusiness and agrifoods in front of younger children who actually do appear to be making their decisions even at primary and late primary level as to where they are going to go in their careers? From your observation study, what more can we do?

Mr Wilson : It is very interesting. I spent 10 years working for the minerals industry around that very issue. I have to say, compared to the agrifood industry, the minerals industry is doing much better. While at AgriFood, we have been much more proactive in getting into the area of school education, particularly around getting students access to qualifications while at school. We have put a partnership together in three states—Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia—where we are working with state departments. We are providing matching funding to increase the number of schools offering agricultural education and to increase the number of students who have access and the number of teachers who have training. What we tend to find in agricultural education is that every time a teacher retires it seems to be an opportunity in many cases for schools to close down the subject. It is very expensive to run and to have an agricultural wing of the school and principals have to make decisions around funding as to what they can offer and what they cannot.

As an example, in Western Australia we have five schools that are now offering a Certificate I in AgriFood Operations. They are five schools that have not offered agrifood qualifications in the past. We are doing a lot of work around that. I cannot give you enrolment numbers because the students have just gone back to school, but we will have that information soon and can certainly supply it. In Queensland we have students undertaking certificate II and III in agriculture and rural operations. Since we have been in partnership we have had an additional eight schools join the Queensland agribusiness academy, which looks at cross-curricular arrangements and puts agriculture into all subjects. So if you are doing maths you might look at agricultural examples. We think this is pretty important because we are finding that students are not talking about ag ed or agricultural jobs as a place to go in the future. Unless we do a lot of work there and get the exposure, we are quite concerned that with the ageing workforce we will not have a workforce coming through to replace those.

South Australia is a little different; our partnership there is around food. In the four schools we currently have, we have seen an enormous increase in the interest from students. Without the teacher professional development and the support of the states to upskill the teachers, we just do not have anywhere to go. There is certainly a lot of good work going on, but I think more can certainly be done.

CHAIR: Are we not best servicing the agriculture related industries in terms of traineeships and apprenticeships? Is there a move towards funding going into apprenticeships? The agricultural industries do not lend themselves to formal, longer term apprenticeships but shorter term skills traineeships? I heard you make a comment earlier about traineeships.

Mr Blewitt : We are very keen on traineeships and, importantly, we also have some work going on with a cadetship to try to drive that process from school through to VET, or to university, and to get some support. We are driving that really hard with a particular focus on agriculture. It is a one-off thing but that is the go. Kids see that as an opportunity to get to understand that. We talk to the schools, to vocational training and to the state government. That is one of the ways.

The issue for us is skill sets. They are important. There are 87,000 people now enrolled in vocational training. Only 20 per cent ever finish those things. That has gone up by 7,000. There were 80,000 two years ago and now it is 87,000. People are going in and doing what they want, but they are also running with their feet in that they get what they want out of a course and that is enough to do a job and get a job, but then they pull out. That is fairly expensive. In one of our recommendations in our latest scan, which will be released in a couple of weeks, we are saying that you need to find a skill set. If you did that, you would allow people to use a skill set as a pathway to a full qualification. That might entice them to do it. So we are driving at. We are also driving the career pathway. That has been cleaned up well. The university have come alongside with articulation. We are also trying to get them to build their degrees to suit us.

Traineeships, cadetships and recognition of prior learning are all important. We would like to see more funds go into that. Currently, a review is going on by DEEWR into accelerated apprenticeships and our proposal is to broaden the scope of apprenticeship benefits beyond just the trades to some of our jobs. Some of the jobs in horticulture, amenity horticulture and agriculture are just as sophisticated and require just as much training but they do not attract the benefits. We are putting in a submission to drive that so we get a much more even distribution of resources, as well as the benefits that go with that. Those are some of the things that we are doing. There is always a difficulty with thin markets. However, we are over that argument and now we have to drive it as a commonality across the country, which we are doing.

CHAIR: We always hear about discrimination against the so-called older workers—and we need to be a bit careful about what constitutes an older worker. People in their early 50s and onwards no longer have that concern about the educational needs of their children, because generally, in most instances, they are already through their education and into their careers. Is there an opportunity at the moment that is being lost? Are there people who are not able to find employment because of their age who would be very employable in agriculture and agribusiness in rural and regional areas who would be quite happy to not necessarily to permanently leave the city but undertake the seasonal work that is required? A lot of the work is no longer so physically demanding. We no longer have to pick up bags of wheat and bags of super; it is all bulk. Is there an opportunity to start to direct those sorts of people who are feeling they are being left behind in the workforce?

Mr Blewitt : Yes, a very strong one. I heard the other day that we are now calling the mature age workers the new black—whatever that means. Importantly, they are the new workers that we want to use. An example is in your state, Chair. A lot of work in the rock lobster industry is putting them in boxes and processing them. Up in the north-west, around 70 or 80 per cent of that work is done by mature age workers. Interestingly, one snippet that is talked about is that they stop work after six weeks because that is when the tax threshold cuts to another level. That is coincidental.

We see it as important. In fact, a group called Costa, a very large producer of blueberries in northern New South Wales, have something like 2,000 workers picking blueberries, the majority of whom are older workers. They go there and they can work as hard as they like or they can have a picnic, and work for an hour a day. It is all piece-rate work. They see those people as a key source of workers. I think it is a key source for us. We have got older workers out there now and we need to retain them. The other thing I mentioned earlier is people taking up business opportunities, with retired dentists and others leaving Sydney and wanting to go out there and start businesses. It is our role to try to help them understand what they can do out there to add real value. So it is a key market for us and one that is very capable and obviously very fit these days, even though they might be 70 or so.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you very much for your submission. I just want to know where in the tables you have provided the ag eco grads are. Are they in your agribusiness stats? There were a lot of science courses obviously, but I was wondering more about those grads.

Mr Blewitt : There has been a lot of push about the fact that ag science is disappearing and therefore no-one is doing it. What they are doing is contemporary courses that suit their thinking and their culture. Ag science is something they do not jump at anymore. We can all discuss the reasons for that. We have got two angles. One is to say to the people doing ag science—and we spoke to UNE and Charles Sturt and Deakin recently—'Why don't you look at your bachelor of rural science? It is still popular but people are now demanding other things. Think about what students want in that. Think about what our industries are telling us and our students are telling us in this document we put out annually, and factor in some other issues. Make it more attractive as an end product that you can take and get a job with.' Students are not going to do anything for nothing. They want a job at the end. That is the first thing.

The second thing is that we see that there is still a lot of energy going into agriculture through this. We recently saw a man called Dr David Lamb at UNE, who is a physicist with four PhDs in physics working with him on looking at satellite technology to count animals, find out where they are and also look at the nutrition in the land they are working on. He is doing agricultural science. There is a lot of that happening and students are wanting to do that. Despite the fact that bachelor of ag science is sliding and has gone off the boil, they are doing other things with different sorts of degrees that are still contributing to agricultural science. That is the issue we wanted to get through. I do not have any clear understanding about where they go, but it seemed to us that this is an array of degrees that people are doing that is relevant to our industry if people happen to chose that. Sometimes you have just got to accept the fact that students just do not want to do it.

Senator McKENZIE: Sorry, I meant more commerce degrees with an ag major.

Mr Blewitt : Yes, business skills are critically important and that was one of the things that we talked to them about: get business skills in there, get sustainable businesses in there and get them to think about how they are going to operate their business in due course.

Senator McKENZIE: You made some comments about a good job and I was going to ask what that looked like. You have fleshed that out. I actually met an environmental scientist who is working in ag research because he has got the technical skills. He is a second year chemist. He has not even finished his bachelor yet. He loves rock climbing. He is living next to his favourite rock and loves that on the weekends and is a chemist by day. Are we doing any work around quantifying those social and cultural things that draw the human beings that choose to live outside of metropolitan cities? Are we trying to quantify those things other than the wage look like for those types of people?

Mr Blewitt : I think I mentioned earlier that they want the Canberra conditions wherever they are. Sometimes you can replicate that and sometimes you cannot. The communities that are doing well are those that actually try to do that. They have got a community atmosphere. They have enough theatre or whatever it is they need to see and they try to do that. Also, families want good spouse jobs and good education for the kids. We did a return on investment exercise and it showed two things. One is that, if the things that were done there go to plan, there is a 3.2 per cent productivity increase for the region. Perhaps the more important finding was that there would be a 33 per cent reduction in the number of people who left that region. Two hundred people do their HSC in that place every year and up till now they have just got on two buses and left for Sydney. Now they are doing traineeships and cadetships, getting them started in things so that they can say that they are doing a reasonable job. That is the trick: to find ways to keep them there. It is about jobs and families and, importantly, finding some incentive.

Senator McKENZIE: You made a comment in your submission about there being inadequate incentives for RTOs to operate efficiently in thin trainer markets. You have made several comments about that. What would a better incentive environment look like?

Mr Blewitt : There are two things. First, it is obviously uneconomic in some places to do it. But there has been a bit of change in thinking. For critical occupations, no matter how short the number, if you desperately need someone then we have to find some way to train them. There has also been a slowness in taking up that opportunity by some of the public providers. What they are being overtaken by is people learning off the internet. They are doing it very cleverly. They are running great businesses. The information there—and you have all looked at this—is just spectacular. So you have a two-fold thing taking place. They are helping themselves. Some of the bigger players are moving to a contractor model in which people have already got training, so they do not have to worry about training people. Importantly, there has to be far more adaptability. There have to perhaps be some incentives for TAFEs and others to put the needed programs in place. Agriculture is expensive to teach. To do vet science at university costs the same price as medicine. We are pushing that. It will come about. But they have to get good teachers on the ground and use e-learning more effectively as well.

Senator BOYCE: I want to follow up firstly on your comment, Mr Wilson, regarding the agribusiness academy. Could you on notice provide us with some more information about the academy, what it does, how many students it has and so on—the usual data that tells us what a great job you are doing and perhaps some other thoughts on how it might be even further improved.

Mr Wilson : The agribusiness gateway schools model followed on from the one that I set up around the Queensland Minerals and Energy Academy. The whole purpose of it is to get a cross-curricula focus on agriculture in those specialised schools. Students can then enrol in those schools knowing that if they go to an agribusiness school they will come across agribusiness at some stage during their time at that school. Some of the schools that we are partnering with have, for example, all students in grade 8 doing agriculture education. That is a big leap, because they are getting exposure. That is very important, because if we are going to build numbers, capacity and class sizes we have to get them early. Unless we get them early, the numbers tend to fall off as you go further up the year levels. We can send some information through the committee about the good numbers that we are generating through that.

Senator BOYCE: You also have a fairly powerful ally now in the Governor-General. I noticed that in her Australia Day speech she mentioned exactly that topic. You have covered in some detail the non-completion rate for training and said that it is because there is a mismatch between how the training or education is offered and how people want to undertake it. Is that the main reason for non-completions? Is there anything else that should be concerning us there?

Mr Blewitt : I am sure that there are other reasons. That is the one that jumps out at us, because that is what we hear. One of the key recommendations in our latest advice from industry is to provide funding for skill sets. But there are other issues. Access probably becomes more difficult. Students may get what they want for other reasons. There are other reasons, but we have not looked at them closely. But it is low. The typical rate is about 40 per cent and some of the apprenticeships get up to 70 or 80 per cent. This is very low; 20 per cent is very low.

Senator BOYCE: You are down to 20 per cent.

Mr Blewitt : Yes. That is very low.

Senator BOYCE: Is there anyone doing any work on why?

Mr Blewitt : We are challenging ourselves to find out why. It is quite hard to suss that out without doing big surveys. And it is like that across the country. Some programs get higher levels. Were you have a requirement—such as having to get a qualification to get a meatworker—there are completion rates of between 80 per cent and 90 per cent. Where it is not absolutely required to get or stay in a job, you do what you want. Secondly, our industries often do not need full qualifications, so they probably do not promote it as much as they should, either.

Senator BOYCE: I notice that you have recommended that the Commonwealth increase funding to develop clear articulation pathways between VET and higher education. I thought that the Commonwealth had probably been putting funding into doing that for maybe 20 years now. What needs to happen that does not happen?

Mr Blewitt : I think it is probably not so much funding as being an issue about the culture in universities. The big eight are not terribly interested because they get enough students anyway and, importantly, they do that. The regional universities have come along, so I think articulation is pretty much achieved. In places like Charles Sturt if you do a vocational training certificate IV you can get some recognition—if you do a diploma you can get a year. That is what really matters to us. So I think we have done enough of that.

The second spoke in our wheel is to try to get them to vary some of the course offerings to include things that are more relevant than they used to be. They are thinking about that. So, I think articulation has probably gone adequately down the track because it is driven by universities, at the end of the day. We asked them for their most selfish reasons for doing it, and it is to get more students. UWS, which is a very large university in Sydney, is doing it because it gets more students. They will do it, but clearly there are some issues around it. There is great disquiet in universities sometimes with the lack of assessed gradings in vocational training, so there is a bit of a risk. Our view is to try them and let them do a diploma and see how they go. If they do well at that, give them a chance to try something else.

CHAIR: Time has beaten us. Thank you for your evidence. Can I ask that you provide to the secretariat any information you can on the Narrabri programs, so that we can study that more closely.

Mr Blewitt : I will just add one thing. When talking about training one of the initiatives the government has been doing for the last couple of years that has been highly successful is the Productivity Places Program, where they are targeting training at higher level skills and keeping existing workers. That is very helpful to us. We have done well out of it. Importantly, talking about higher level skills, in 2010-11we put out 1,200 of those places and 40 per cent went to diplomas. That is a suggestion that what this committee is on about is important to us. Both diplomas and higher level qualifications are being demanded by industry at this stage.