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

BLOOM, Mr Geoffrey Michael, Executive Director, Rural Skills Australia

CORNISH, Mr Wayne Alwyn, Chairman, Rural Skills Australia

[10:02]

CHAIR: Thank you for your attendance and for your submission. Would either of you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Cornish : I am from the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. I am a practising farmer growing several commodities. I am here in my capacity as chairman of Rural Skills Australia. Thank you for allowing us to speak to you this morning. It is one of a number of opportunities we have been able to take over the years. As we say in our submission to you, we just wonder when things will actually change for the real better. There have been improvements, admittedly, but you would have to say that sensational improvements have been taking a long time to drag out of the woodwork. The culture for change in the education and training area is right now. Our organisation hopes to be in the forefront, with others, of trying to bring on those changes and to help to implement them.

Our organisation is a not-for-profit one. We have staff in every state and we try through our experience and our abilities to service the needs of rural and regional communities by giving them a hands-on approach more than an academic style of approach. It has worked very successfully. We have mounted a number of submissions and projects over the years that have been very useful. Some of them have been very well received by the rural community. It is disappointing, as I said earlier, that the changes that we would all like to see have not been as apparent as they must be if this area is going to change. Some of that is about money, of course—matters always are. But a lot of it is about culture shifts, about doing things differently and about them actually being much more meaningful to rural communities in particular than they have been in the past.

What is also very important—and my organisation takes this responsibility on itself very seriously—is the linkage we have between school age children and industry in general. The people that we have based in our states carry out that function as one of their major activities. The interface between industry and particularly metropolitan schools is not good. It is particularly hard to service because people change all the time. You can spend a lot of effort and time getting a careers adviser up to speed only to learn that that person has left very shortly after you have spent a lot of time and effort. We believe there are things in that area in particular that can be made better. There is real evidence to suggest that the only way that you make real improvement in this game is to be face-to-face with the participants and to be face-to-face with potential employers. There is nothing that is quite as misunderstood as education and training as far as rural employers are concerned. That, again, is a cultural matter and it is one of those things that we put a lot of effort into changing through activities with NFF, state organisations and others.

Our organisation is not made up of a batch of farmers; whilst I am one, we also have people from the AWU, as we did when our organisation was established some years ago. It is a cross-section activity manned by cross-sectional people, if you like, and so we are able to touch bases with all of those areas of relevance where those things become important to us.

CHAIR: Senator Rhiannon, would you like to start the questions. I will ask my colleagues to be fairly brief and your answers the same so that we can cover a lot of ground.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you very much, Mr Chair. From your opening comments, I get a sense that there has been quite a bit of frustration with how things are played out. You said that you feel that the culture for change is right now. So I am just wondering what your priorities are, because we still have so many of the challenges in terms of career paths. We spoke earlier about the cultural change that is needed in terms of job security. There are so many things that need to change. We know it is not all going to come immediately, and in developing education courses we need to be mindful of these wider issues that have become obstacles. Where would you put the priorities?

Mr Cornish : Bearing in mind that there always need to be standards and, in this case, they are called competency standards, I think they remain the backbone and presumably always will. But within that system there is a crying need for more flexibility to meet industry's needs. Our industries generally do not or cannot cater for educational activities that go on for a long period of time. They are much more able to accept shorter snapshots of training so that there can be a cumulative effect arriving at whatever point the student wishes to arrive.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you give us a time frame of 'short snapshot'? I assume you are saying small snapshots over a period of time.

Mr Cornish : Yes. I think that is where the flexibility comes in. Both the employee and the employer need to be able to determine that end point. Gone should be the days—unfortunately, they are not—when an RTO or somebody from academia comes along and says, 'This is what is good for you.' We need a system which is able to allow the participants within that system to say, 'This is what we need and how can you best furnish a result for us?'

To answer your question more directly, flexibility in the system might mean two or three days of acute activity and then quite long breaks or it might mean taking a selection of modules or blocks of a particular set of activities and carrying them out in a short space of time and then being able to build on them. So the people that are actually in the course system are more determinative of how they go about practising.

Senator RHIANNON: What comes through in a lot of the reports I have just read from industry as well as some of the submissions is this issue that there is in fact a poor image of the agrifood industry. For a lot of people—particularly young people—it is not so attractive; they look to the bright lights on the coast and all that sort of thing, so there is a lot of competition here. How do you think that issue can be addressed, because it would seem to be significant?

Mr Cornish : There is really only one way that can effectively be addressed. I am as guilty as anybody, I suppose, because I have been in the agripolitical system as well. If you pick up any research document that a kid might be looking to interest themselves in as far as taking a career path in agriculture or horticulture, it is all gloom, doom and disaster. Once you get past page 2 or 3 you might read some better stories. Admittedly, since the end of the drought, some those experiences have improved. But by and large, and I am talking as a farmer now, it is our own industries' fault for talking ourselves down. Why would people want to come and join us when we are so good at telling them really that they should not? That cultural change is coming about again, because as the rural society changes—and it is changing all the time—those things are becoming better. There are very, very strong career paths and opportunities within our industries collectively and we just need to be more proactive and get the good messages out there as well as some of the stuff that you would read in the Weekly Times and the Stock Journal and so forth.

Senator RHIANNON: I suppose where I am coming from in relation to training packages is again just thinking of young people. There is an extraordinary shift. There is certainly still an attraction of a rural lifestyle, but many people do these days have an interest in animal welfare, the ethics of the land et cetera. How do you think those issues can be built into this important change we are talking about?

Mr Cornish : As Arthur mentioned to you previously, there are things that are being undertaken on the formal side of training regimes, but there are other things which are happening just because it is absolutely essential that they do. Farmers are not complete fools. They recognise that animal welfare issues and so forth are uppermost in the minds of the community. From a practical point of view, farmers know very well that the only money that can be made out of livestock comes out of happy, contented livestock. So it is about getting that message across and building the bridge, because there are protagonists on each side which are not terribly helpful to the cause in general. It is about meeting somewhere in the middle and allowing the education system, whatever that might be, to provide for itself within the system as well.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you.

Senator BOYCE: Mr Cornish, you spoke earlier about education and training being misunderstood by employers. Could you explain to me what you mean by that?

Mr Cornish : I spent many years as Vice President of NFF and as President of the South Australian Farmers Federation and stood in many town halls addressing people. The very quickest way to send them to sleep was to talk about education and training. As soon as you get off that subject and get on to something a bit—

Senator BOYCE: Meatier, perhaps.

Mr Cornish : Yes, people liven up again. But it is a very difficult issue to come to some common level at with a big group of people. Once you get them one-on-one it is easier. Our industry, the training industry, suffers usually from the use of acronyms. It uses acronyms and people do not know what we are talking about. It happens accidentally; once you become used to using them they just roll off the tongue. People that are wanting to understand what this whole business is about just get lost in the verbal malaise. It is something which our organisation has been trying to correct for some time in the way that we confront people, I suppose.

Senator BOYCE: So you are trying to get support from potential employers for education and training in the sector or you are trying to get people to see that they should have education and training? I am not quite sure.

Mr Cornish : We do both. We are at both ends of the scale. We are certainly acutely aware of the importance of being involved with farmers to make them aware of what is available and how they can be involved with the process—

Senator BOYCE: It is perhaps an inbuilt bias against things that are not practical? Is that part of what we are talking about here?

Mr Cornish : It is largely different. Twenty years ago things were very different to the way they are now in the education and training system. Perhaps not at the sharp end of the system—the more academic end—but in the traineeship and apprenticeship area and the basic skills area things have changed light years in a very short space of time. The rural community is, I believe, having a little bit of difficulty keeping up with what is available and how they can access it. Once they understand it clearly and they get through all the acronyms and they cut all the crap out of the way, they become very interested very quickly.

Mr Bloom : Can I add something there. We have got a network of education and training advisors. We have one in each state and one in Darwin. Their role is to talk one-on-one with farmers. When they explain what a traineeship is—that they can actually hire their own son or daughter or pick their own person and sign them up and tell them where to go to sign up that trainee, where any off-the-job training will take place and what wages they have got to pay them—they know how the system works.

Senator BOYCE: But that is a rather slow business if you are going to be doing it one on one around Australia, though, isn't it?

Mr Bloom : Yes, but we do that at field days and wherever else. Despite the fact that the department has spent a lot of money promoting apprenticeships and traineeships, I still get people ringing me thinking that once you have signed up an apprentice that you have got him even though you go broke—that you cannot move him somewhere else. They do not have that depth of knowledge of the system.

Senator BOYCE: You talk also about the fact that some programs have distorted the training market and inflated and increased the nominal cost of qualifications. Could you give me some detail on that—give examples of what you mean there please?

Mr Bloom : PPP has been available for the last couple of years, and that has been funded very well from the Commonwealth through the states and now some of the Commonwealth money is actually going to the skills councils. A lot of people have gone in that have got recognition of prior learning and the cost per certificate, whether it is a certificate IV or certificate III has been set at a very high rate.

Senator BOYCE: Because they have that prior learning they are not using the whole package. Is that what you are saying?

Mr Bloom : Some of it has come in very well. But providers might come in and if they are training someone who has all the skills, they do not have to be there too long to pick up $8,000 a head or something. So these benchmarks have been set and that has pushed a lot of the numbers up at the higher level, which is good for our industry because we are all for people getting their skills recognised. But the rates they have been set at is quite high. You compare that to a traineeship. We also made mention that in New South Wales the New South Wales government has cut the rate for the off-the-job training for a certificate II trainee in agriculture back to $1,200 to the provider. That is from $2,100. The net effect of that is no provider will deliver that training.

Senator BOYCE: What should happen to fix that problem?

Mr Bloom : The states somehow should be told to up the rate so that we can put people in certificate II.

Senator BOYCE: I mean with the ones that are overcharged.

Mr Bloom : That money has already gone into the system.

Senator BOYCE: But how do you fix it for the future, if you are saying it is a problem?

Mr Bloom : What we are saying is that that has set the benchmark.

Senator BOYCE: So it has distorted the market?

Mr Bloom : Yes, it has distorted it slightly.

Senator GALLACHER: I note that you have mentioned there should be downloadable training courses. I am intrigued as to your success with training in that environment. In a transport environment a lot of people have lower literacy and numeracy—they are not unskilled people, and if prior skills are recognised there is no issue—but in the training environment I wonder if there is any success with that. Do you have examples of where that has been successful?

Mr Bloom : I will give you a bit of background to our rural skills online. I came across this online system which was a locally developed product in Victoria. It consists of two websites; it has a training tracker and all the resource material that backs up the training package. It was one of the best systems I have seen, and this was probably four or five years ago, so we applied for some project money through DEEWR and did some trials. In the first one we trialled some certificate II VET in schools students and we trialled some certificate IV existing workers through that system. We have developed the resources. We own the system, or get access to the system through a fee, and then we partner with a registered training organisation. They deliver the qualification using our online system.

We use the online system to deliver the formal part of a training course. We understand there has to be quality at the end of it and they have still got to be able to demonstrate that they can drive the tractor or muster sheep or whatever, so it is a mixture of on and off the job. What it does is that, where there are thin markets, it allows a student to login and do a lot of his formal training online rather than having to go and sit in a classroom. It is available 24/7 so they can do it in their own time.

Senator GALLACHER: You are having success with that model?

Mr Bloom : It has been very successful. We are gradually building up our resources. We have resources from certificate II right through to diploma level and higher. We do not have a lot of staff but it is certainly going well. We have something like 16 providers now signed up to our system, some in the last 12 months. The South Queensland Institute of TAFE has come on board. Kimberley TAFE, in the Kimberley, has come on board. I think it is something for the future. The more resources and assessment material we can build into this system that is of quality, the better we are going to go with it. And, of course, it saves people having to write their own resources, because with every new training package that comes out people say, 'Well, where are the resources to back the delivery of this competency?' It is about sharing at a very reasonable cost, through what we charge them to access the system.

Senator GALLACHER: Can you touch briefly on the experiences in Canada and New Zealand and what they may be doing to address these labour market problems? You mentioned that briefly at the back of your submission. Perhaps you could take on notice to give us any information you have on that.

Mr Bloom : Yes, I will.

Mr Cornish : I am not familiar enough with the Canadian experience to be able to comment on that, but I think the New Zealand model does offer some opportunities because it goes a long way towards the things that I mentioned earlier about giving greater levels of responsibility to the participants, both students and employers. There is also a whole range of flexibilities in their system which we do not have here at the moment. So we have looked at it. I know that the Australian government looked at it some four or five years ago now, but it is something which needs to be taken a little more seriously here in Australia, because it does have some elements to it which could be very useful to our position.

Senator McKENZIE: I only have a couple of questions. My primary question goes to page 15 of your submission. You mention the Industries Development Committee Workforce, Skills And Training Working Group, established in 2008. It produced a final report in 2009, so two years ago. There were lots of recommendations and again they were things that lots of people have been saying across all sectors of agriculture for a long time. I am wondering if you could give the committee your perception of how we are tracking as a group, as a nation, towards outcomes around these recommendations.

Mr Cornish : I chaired that activity. It had tremendous outcomes.

Mr Bloom : I think she is talking about—

Mr Cornish : Sorry. What year was it—2008?

Senator McKENZIE: The report was produced in 2009.

Mr Bloom : The one Wayne is talking about was from 2002, when we did a national—

Senator McKENZIE: Yes, and I think Senator Back has that one covered.

CHAIR: I do want to take you back to that eventually.

Mr Bloom : That report which you mentioned was written towards the end of 2008 but was not released until some months later.

Senator McKENZIE: October 2009.

Mr Bloom : But there was absolutely no follow-up from DAFF. We were mentioned in there as working with certain organisations and we never received any written advice or anything. It is a bit hard when you get a report—

Senator McKENZIE: And there was no follow-up.

Mr Bloom : and there was no follow-up, yes.

Senator McKENZIE: I noticed that in recommendations 3 and 4 there were specific time lines in 2010 for addressing the gaps. As a participant and someone who was going to be involved in the delivery of these recommendations, you had no communication from the department about this. Is that normal process?

Mr Bloom : We have seen a lot of government reports and if they are making recommendations you would think that they would write to us and say, 'We think you can be involved. There's some assistance if you need it.' So that was a bit disappointing, I thought.

Senator McKENZIE: Fair enough.

CHAIR: Mr Cornish, I noticed that you chaired that review and the report to the then minister, Minister Kemp. You said yourself that, regrettably, 10 years on it could legitimately be asked: has anything really changed? Would you care to take us through that process and perhaps expand a little bit on the question you asked and the reasons why?

Mr Cornish : The people who were involved in that process were all very active in the industry and they identified a whole gaggle, if I can use the word, of areas where things could be improved. Not only did they moan that it could be better but they put up propositions for how to make it better and how to deal with it. It has been immensely disappointing that nothing has come from that.

That is not a process that took place in isolation, let me say. There are truckloads, literally libraries full of stuff that has been paid for by government one way or another where people have gone through a project process, made submissions and gone through inquiries. We live in hope that something is going to come, but frankly it does not. That is the really frustrating part about getting this change, which is urgently required, because our industry and our regional and rural communities are difficult to service. We understand that. They are different, which unfortunately some bureaucrats do not quite get. But nevertheless it is not impossible to bridge the impasse. Those things which have been identified not only in our report but in myriad others, I suspect, do not seem to receive the credibility that they should, firstly. Secondly, there should be some really strong efforts made to correct the deficiencies that have been clearly identified. I hope that answers your question without going into the nitty-gritty detail of the report recommendations one by one.

CHAIR: We may ask the secretary to research it or whatever. I think it would be very interesting for this committee to have the executive summary and recommendations from that 2001 study.

Senator BOYCE: Perhaps we could just photocopy them, Chair. I was being cynical.

CHAIR: Sure. You actually said at the conclusion of your submission that many have demonstrated a willingness to actively participate in appropriate government initiated activity, looking forward to addressing it, and the active involvement of senior industry representatives on that original working group clearly demonstrates their interest. I think it would be very interesting for this snapshot in 2012 to actually go back and see what you said in 2001 and to really analyse what is still relevant, what still needs to be done. That could give us some guidance in some aspects of this hearing.

Mr Cornish : We would be delighted to furnish you with that report. One of the things which came from that process or was part of that process indeed was a function we carried out ourselves funded by DEEWR. We put up an electronic careers advice process called On Track online for a potential participant or somebody who wanted to know something of our industries with a whole range of different identities and industries within industries. A lot of them were covered, not all admittedly because we could not quite make the dollar stretch that far, but that was accepted unanimously across Australia with great relief and it gave us great pride to be associated with it. I had the pleasure of launching it at an NFF convention in Carnarvon and at that stage I had to every quarter give an education and training report. That is one of the moments where everybody went to sleep. But when I launched this in conjunction with some other people the whole room just came to life. That was a turning point in terms of the culture around NFF and their interest in education and training. That has been a wonderful resource. I only wish we could find the money to update it and carry it forward. That is just one of the positive things which came out of it. There are a whole range of things which have not been touched or have not been dealt with properly because there does not seem to have been sufficient interest in the outcomes.

CHAIR: Sure. But the tool we have in 2012 that you did not have in 2001 is access to the internet and the enormous amount of information with the speed and the availability.

Mr Cornish : Yes, and I think we have probably a little more excitement around the whole area where people would be a little more prepared today to listen and take notice and perhaps be active rather than where they were back in 2001.

CHAIR: Also particularly in terms of your making a point about this flexibility of allowing the employer and employee. I do not know if it was in your submission or someone else's submission that within a farming family younger members of the farming family or more appropriate members of the farming family can pick up the skills that are necessary for the contribution they make in the overall running of the family business.

Mr Cornish : Absolutely. There is a great opportunity for groups of farmers through the collectives that they have in different regions and districts to be able to come together and to take advice from organisations like ours and agri-food and others that can assist them in moving forward. The proof again is there. We do not have to go back to square one and try and find out how to do this; there was a program in Australia called FarmBis some years ago and in some states, not all, it worked particularly well. It allowed those collectives of interested people who wanted to upskill or to participate in education and training and never had done it before to be involved. It was enormously successful and some of the object lessons that came out of that should have been kept and built on and introduced into the more formal system in some fashion.

CHAIR: Could I take you to an area that is completely unrelated to what we have been talking about, and that is the whole question of agricultural extension. Many years ago, departments of agriculture at state level were very actively involved in extending information to the farming sector. We all trooped out at field days, we all spoke, et cetera. The universities were involved to some extent in either organising extension activities or participating in them. Even CSIRO would do so. It seems to me that all three of those agencies and institutions have actually departed the scene. Is this an area of concern to yourselves? It used to be a great avenue for improving rural skills at a very practical, local level. Who is filling that void, or does the void need to be filled? Are there now other online mechanisms by which participants can actually get the information they used to get at field days through agricultural extension?

Mr Cornish : I lament the passing of those days as well—all the activities that we could engage in. But as a practising farmer we have had to find other ways to glean that information. The agronomic information that we need that used to come from departments and others generally comes from consultants now, and perhaps agribusinesses which may have on staff the relevant competence to be able to give you advice. Doing that online is also gaining momentum; I would suppose that 50 per cent of the information we get would come online and 50 per cent would come face to face. But those days will never be reinvented, I am afraid. I do not think we will ever go back to that area where departments of agriculture around the country will be in a position to provide that advice, and I think farmers recognise that and so they form relationships the best way they know how. If you are in the top 20 per cent of the farming community you are probably engaging most acutely with them. Then it dissipates as you slide down that scale. The information can still be gleaned. I think one of the real problems is for the bottom 50 per cent—understanding how they can access it and how they can make that information available to themselves. It is there if you are able to glean it.

CHAIR: There were also forums where agricultural researchers got up and presented their information and then interacted with the community who would ultimately use the benefit of their research. That is also gone. We are now hearing that far fewer people want to become involved in agriculture research. Is that part of the reason—that researchers feel disengaged and therefore it is no longer of interest to them?

Mr Cornish : They certainly do. They feel unloved when it comes to propelling their findings into the community. There are no vehicles left anymore to do that in the way that they used to. Although I have to say that HRDC, Horticulture Australia, GRDC and those bigger organisations generally—not as a rule but generally—put about 10 per cent of their project funding aside for that extension process, whatever that might engage. Sometimes those things are done on a very formal basis where it is a travelling circus that goes around Australia and delivers, and other times it might be more personal and on a more one-on-one basis. It depends on the project itself and the size of the industry.

Senator McKENZIE: I am interested in your comments around school based training and about the rigour surrounding the assessment of those programs. Do you want to make any further comment or extend on your comments about that?

Mr Bloom : It depends on what the student's background is. If he has grown up on a farm and he does a certificate II in agriculture as part of year 11 and 12, I believe that he come out with a full certificate II. But it depends on where he has come from. He would lack the practical experience unless he has spent all of his holidays out there on a property. Therefore he would just about get through that, but he would have to be topped off when he went into the industry. What I have trouble with is people signing them up into certificate IIIs. As you are well aware, certificate III is trade level. We see in other trades that people do four-year apprenticeships. They are going through school based stuff and then allegedly coming out with a certificate III. The consequence of that is that they are going to walk into a job in the industry and they will not be competent to do the job. Say you have somebody on a dairy farm. Certificate III would go over two, two and a bit or three years or whatever it might be. They have probably been through three lots of calving. The first year might have gone fantastically, but the next year there might have been a lot of problems. That is why I am commenting on that: we should be looking closely at what these people can deliver.

Senator McKENZIE: As I travelled around regional Victoria over summer, I was hearing about residential programs et cetera and people, whether they are studying agricultural science or obviously doing cert IIIs through school, needing that on-the-ground, over-time experience. 'Skill', by definition, in a lot of places means something physical and something practised and learnt, so that takes time in a certain place and space to be able to develop. So I am just wondering about the role of residential or extended on-farm time through these packages. You are obviously advocating more on-farm time.

Mr Bloom : That is right. I have no problem with it as long as that person is competent at the end of the day, if they are up to cert III. But I find it quite difficult in the amount of time—I think they allow about 120 hours each year within the schools for the formal part of it—to deliver a certificate III in a school. They might be able to do it in other occupations, but I do not think they can do it in ours. I can make another comment about some other projects we have done with the schools. Would you be interested in that?

CHAIR: Time might beat us.

Senator McKENZIE: Could you provide those on notice.

Mr Bloom : Yes, we could do that.

Senator McKENZIE: That would be fantastic. Thank you.

CHAIR: You mentioned this ONTrack site. We are interested in knowing the fate of it. Did it fall apart? Where is it now? Who ran it? What would be the interest level in re-establishing it or an updated version of it?

Mr Bloom : We still have CD-ROMs of it, and we also have it on our website. We have taken parts out of it and put it into separate industries, but if you look on our website under 'agrifood careers' then you will find it there.

Mr Cornish : We can send some discs up when we send the other material. I am sure you will find it interesting. But industries, like everything else in the community, move on. What was really relevant back in 2001 or 2003 is probably a bit off the pace now.

Senator BOYCE: But it is not so much the content; it is the existence of it.

Mr Cornish : Yes. We would ideally like to upgrade that and bring it into 2012.

CHAIR: The topics raised have been very interesting. I thank you very much for your participation.

Proceedings suspended from 10:43 to 11:00