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Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee
Higher education and skills training for agriculture and agribusiness

LINNEGAR, Mr Matt, Chief Executive Officer, National Farmers Federation

CHAIR: Welcome. The committee thanks you for your submission. Would you like to make a short opening statement before we go to questions?

Mr Linnegar : Yes, thank you. Australian agriculture faces a range of challenges, not the least of which includes climate change and global food shortages which are increasing labour and skills needs in agricultural industries. Securing an adequate supply of suitably skilled labour is vital in optimising Australia's agricultural productivity. Improving the skill level of the agricultural workforce is essential to enhancing innovation, strengthening competitiveness, boosting resilience and developing a large capacity for the industry to capitalise on opportunities and contribute to global food security.

A number of factors inhibit the agricultural industry in filling demand for workers. These include labour competition from other industries, poor promotion of the industry including some negative messages about agricultural working conditions, an ageing population and declining rural population. Impediments to meeting the industry's skills shortages include low levels of industry participation in educating and training, low numbers of undergraduates and graduates in tertiary agricultural courses, poor awareness of agricultural career pathways and the limited capacity of the current educating and training system to deliver innovative training solutions.

Other constraints in addressing labour and skills shortages in the agricultural industry relate to the limited availability of detailed labour and skills data for the sector and clearly evaluated contemporary labour and skills needs, less than effective engagement of Indigenous Australians, youth, women and migrants in agricultural employment and limited workforce planning in human resource management capabilities in many agricultural enterprises.

Although government, industry, educating institutions and career service providers are responding to labour and skills shortages in agriculture at national, state and indeed regional levels, the approaches are somewhat fragmented and uncoordinated. In our submission to this inquiry, we have focused on strategies to facilitate a more coordinated and collaborative approach across government and industry to address the major workforce, skills and training issues affecting the whole agricultural supply chain, those being improving collaboration and coordination across government; improving communication and engagement between industry, educators and government; adopting integrated and strategic approaches to developing and implementing solutions; increasing workforce participation in agriculture; building workforce planning and human resource management capabilities; improving data on the supply and demand of labour skills in agriculture; and, greater industry ownership and responsibility.

The outcomes being pursued by NFF are as follows: firstly, the establishment of a national agrifood policy research centre; secondly, the formation of an interdepartmental committee and maintaining commitment to the Primary Industries Educating Foundation. We believe proactive mechanisms are required and we note last month's media reports in both the Canberra Times and the Age estimating that 'labour shortage is costing farmers $150 million a year'. Without government acting, this figure will without doubt increase in coming months and years. When considering the range of occupations affected, our submission in closing is better framed as both a labour and skills shortage call to action to government.

NFF has been proactive in addressing this growing industry concern by convening an industry roundtable in Canberra for Friday this week. We anticipate in excess of 60 agricultural industry leaders from across Australia will be attending to discuss and formulate workable solutions. I undertake to provide the committee with the outcome of this event and welcome any questions you may have.

Senator McKENZIE: In your submission you make three comments about what you expect industry, the government and the system to do. Could you expand on your comments about what the system should do around redirection of state government funding and RTOs?

Mr Duggan : Framing that issue in the formation of the national workforce development funds, it is perceived that the funding is moving away from the states to being controlled by the new productivity agency that will take effect from July this year. The feedback we are receiving from our members is that the state funding, the employer incentives, is inhibiting the take-up of traineeships across the industry. It is hoped that that will be overcome through the control of finances at the federal level through the department of innovation. The incentives will be to pick up VET sector employees, whether they be existing workers or new entrants.

Senator McKENZIE: We have also been hearing today, and in other submissions, about the protracted discussion of this issue. I think the NFF is particularly well positioned to comment on the fragmentation of this conversation from an industry perspective. Do you have any comments around that?

Mr Linnegar : We recognise the issue you have raised, and this inquiry is an important step in addressing them. From my brief experience so far, the sector seems to be fragmented into the higher education side and the schooling side. And that is also the way it seems to have panned out in our sector in terms of the groups that are trying to address the issue. So, not surprisingly, we have said that these groups need to come together—and they are coming together, at least initially—to find out if there are better ways. It does not mean we have to lump everything into one body but it does mean much better coordination and cooperation between those two sectors and in how the industry then attacks those issues through the two sectors and the bodies that are trying to do something in those areas.

Senator McKENZIE: Do you have any comment to make about the final report on workforce training and skills issues in agriculture which was delivered in October 2009? Maybe you could take that on notice.

Mr Linnegar : We may have to!

Senator McKENZIE: No problem.

Mr Duggan : Is that the DAFF secretariat report to primary industries?

Senator McKENZIE: Yes, to the Ministerial Council.

Mr Duggan : As we understand it, that has not been actioned The IDC and the research centre are in that report, and we reiterate our calls for the establishment of those.

Senator McKENZIE: Have you received any communication around the recommendations that were made from that?

Mr Duggan : We have put a request to DAFF to find out exactly where they are up to, but we have not had a reply.

Senator GALLACHER: Do you have a comment or a view on the role of the CSIRO in the agricultural sector? Should that role be expanded?

Mr Linnegar : In terms of education and training?

Senator GALLACHER: Or in terms of fulfilling some of the skills gaps.

Mr Linnegar : The CSIRO could perhaps play a part in helping highlight some of the opportunities in the sector. One of the things we have just been talking about is opportunities in agricultural science. Indeed, in 10 or 20 years time, a lot of the generation that have been trained in agricultural science will have come and gone. So perhaps there is a role there. But is there a role more broadly for CSIRO? I am not sure. I do not see what role CSIRO could play to help highlight this issue, other than what we have just spoken about.

Senator GALLACHER: Is there a bridge between some of the scientific developments and the actual application? Is there a use for the developmental role of the CSIRO? Is it being put in place?

Mr Linnegar : I guess there is. It would be focused more on that tertiary sector. Perhaps there are inroads that they can make and connections with universities and others in that sector to help, not just in terms of opportunities for employment but also transition between university and job opportunities. Perhaps there is a role there.

Senator GALLACHER: Are there any examples of successful Indigenous participation, and are there any examples in Canada or New Zealand which give us a way forward?

Mr Linnegar : As far as I am aware, there are some successful examples around the cattle industry in Northern Australia of Indigenous participation. There are other programs, for instance those run by groups like Mission Australia, that source and connect indigenous Australians with employment opportunities more broadly in regional Australia rather than perhaps only in agriculture. They are a couple of examples that I can think of off the top of my head. I am not aware of programs overseas and their success at this point.

Mr Duggan : If we can take that on notice, we can come back to it. I am aware of some of the programs, but I do not know the names or the timeframes. I can come back to you on that one.

Senator GALLACHER: So what would be the indigenous participation rate? Do you have any idea?

Mr Linnegar : In terms of percentage or numbers? I do not know the answer to that. We can take that on notice.

Senator GALLACHER: How is the shortage of graziers affecting the ability of grain farmers to make the necessary productivity gains?

Mr Linnegar : Grain farmers specifically?

Senator GALLACHER: Yes.

Mr Linnegar : I think that the shortage of graduates is a problem right across the sector. It is obviously not restricted to the grains industry, but no doubt they are feeling the same thing as the rest of the industry. What we are seeing, and we have heard this from the Deans of Agriculture, is that we know about the gap now and how large that gap is, and there are places there that are not being filled. There are obviously employment opportunities that are being filled by somebody, but they are not people who are agriculturally trained.

What effect does that have, and how does that link to the productivity gains? There are a couple of things there. One will be focused on the agronomy side of things. We have all seen that shift from publically provided and government advice to farmers and agronomists et cetera to advice that is largely being provided by the private sector, so that advice is coming from a different direction to what it once was. What does that mean in terms of overall productivity? I think it means that those people are getting both their advice and, potentially, their products and services through the same agencies. What that means on-farm is one thing, but what it means in terms of the science behind that is probably more the issue. Are we getting the publically-funded broader advice filtering through which stems from that science? It probably has more to do with that and with investment in research and development in agriculture more broadly than it has to do with the advice on-farm or how farmers are faring because of that.

Senator GALLACHER: You have a comprehensive position favoured to us. If you could have one thing out of all of those recommendations, what would you say government should do?

Mr Linnegar : I think it would be to establish the centre we have noted there. There are three key things that we called for there, but if the national agrifood policy research centre were the one thing that came out of it, that is what we would be seeking.

Senator BOYCE: Recommendation 1 in your submission mentions yet again the simplified articulation pathways, which have been brought up by a number of people. There has certainly been a lot of work in this area in the past, but what still needs to happen to simplify these pathways?

Mr Duggan : Effectively, the government model is one-size-fits-all, that being that training packages result in qualifications. Industry is calling for skills sets where employees can take training as needs be at an operational level. The career paths that are open in agriculture are varied, so there needs to be a clear linkage through skills sets training packages through the VET system into the tertiary system as employees and employers require. A simple entry and exit model, which is the one-size-fits-all, is not appropriate. I am sure you are hearing that message, because I have read many of the submissions.

Senator BOYCE: Yes, we are certainly getting that message, but not a lot of people are suggesting to us how to fix it. I thought the modular approach had arrived in TAFE. Has it?

Mr Duggan : To give you a specific example, the training package has endorsed skills sets, but there is a whole bureaucracy behind getting an endorsed skills set out of the training package. To wit, under the National Workforce Development Fund it is proposed that employers will put a workforce plan to the Industry Skills Council to get funding. One of those would be to take appropriate units of competencies from training packages that are usable in the industry or in the enterprises. These would overcome the low completion rates in the current VET sector.

Senator BOYCE: We had evidence earlier that the low completion rates were very much about the fact that what was on offer was not what the students wanted. In fact, students were doing the bits they wanted and then leaving. Do you think that is one of the reasons for the low completion rates?

Mr Duggan : May I suggest to you that it is evidence. Industry is going around the blockage in the system, that being employees doing the units or competencies they want to do and then not completing the course. We suggest that is evidence of what industry wants.

Senator BOYCE: Where does this leave us in terms of people coming out of a recognised formal qualification? How do you see that working?

Mr Duggan : The proposal that government has under the new system is that all RTOs will have a trainee number and they can take that number and port it around various RTOs. That is suggesting skills sets over a period of time and not a set traineeship, which is an issue as well for industry—set periods of time, nominal completion hours. The transportability of partly completed courses would allow trainees or employees to finish a qualification when it suits them, not when the funding is available.

Senator BOYCE: You mentioned that there is potential for the education system to be reoriented back into the ownership of industry. Could you describe what you see that looking like and what the advantages or disadvantages of it would be from your perspective?

Mr Duggan : With the new system coming out we foresee there being a knowledge gap between employers and the bureaucracy—how to access the national workforce funding; how do you go about getting trainee incentives? There needs to be more information provided to employers in line with business plans. The current proposal as it is at the moment is that AgriFood deals directly with employers to develop a workforce plan. We think more resources need to be put into the sector to assist employers on the ground work out where their labour needs are going to be in five or 10 years time, not just on a cycle to do with government funding.

Senator BOYCE: So you would see advantages in industry running the education system. Are there disadvantages?

Mr Duggan : There are disadvantages because industry will be focused on productivity gains in the short term, but we think there would be limited disadvantages if the training bureaucracy engaged more with the farmers on the land over the RTOs, the Industry Skills Council and the DEEWR and department of innovation people. There seems to be a language of its own on the training and vocational side which is not filtering down to the enterprise level.

Senator BOYCE: And how should that filter down?

Mr Duggan : One possible solution is a go-between. Rural Skills Australia has officers on the ground who interact with employers, as do other employer groups such as AiG and ACCI. If that initiative were expanded, it would be a way for the educational professionals to interact with the employers directly.

Senator BOYCE: There seems to me to be a disconnect between some of the images around farming and agribusiness as being shrinking, dying industries. I notice you have a section in here on succession planning for family farms and things like that. There is that idea that we have a shrinking industry but there is a lack of workforce going forward, which suggests a growing industry. Can you try to flesh out for me why that perceived disconnect exists and what we should be doing to overcome it?

Mr Linnegar : For a whole range of reasons it exists. Firstly, as we said there, as an industry we have not done enough to promote what is actually happening in agriculture at the moment. So I think there is a view out there of the proverbial hayseed out of the side of the mouth when nothing could be further from the truth in terms of the levels of proficiency and technology required in modern agriculture.

The other thing is that we are seeing shrinkage in the number of farmers who are continuing to farm but obviously there is an increase in the size of those operations and the scale of those operations. So whilst there are shrinking numbers of farmers, within the service industries, supply industries and others associated with agriculture we are seeing, notwithstanding droughts and other things we have seen over the last decade or so, growth. Also, when we look to the global situation in terms of food supply and demand and the need for security and diversity within our own country in terms of agricultural enterprises, that is where the growth is.

As we said before, at the same time we have seen that declining interest in being involved in agriculture the small amount of effort being put in to ensure that agriculture stays on the radar in school curriculums has been an uphill battle. So I can see where the perceptions have come from. It is really now that the sector is taking stock in terms of what is happening and trying to find ways to put more effort into promoting what is actually happening. I think a lot of it is more about perception than it is about reality.

Senator RHIANNON: You mentioned the diverse skill base that so many farmers have and need these days. Your submission—and certainly in some of the material before the inquiry, and what is around generally—addresses the issue of the disjunct between the skills base and the image that many Australians have when looking at this sector. Could you explore the image of life on the land and seeking a job and working in the agriculture sector? It seems that this image is something that can hold people back from pursuing a career here and from seriously considering the personal satisfaction that that could get. I am interested in how you are addressing that because it seems to be very relevant in terms of how the courses and the changes that we are talking about are taken forward.

Mr Linnegar : As we mentioned before, there is the Primary Industries Education Foundation and there is another focused on the tertiary education side through a group called PICSE, and there are a range of other groups, universities and others in the sector, who are doing their utmost to present a better image and make those connections through to the education sector about the opportunities that are there. Part of the reason, at least, in my view, for this inquiry getting off the ground was that those efforts to date have not been good enough in terms of success rates.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you think we have been on the wrong track or is it that not enough resources have been put in? Do you think we have the right ideas but we are not doing enough or are we on the wrong track?

Mr Linnegar : I think it is more the former than the latter. Having said that, as we mentioned here, there are always ways and means to improve the way we are going and the track we are on. There simply have not been enough resources put into this to turn the corner and start to change some of those views.

Senator RHIANNON: I do not want to open the live export issue, but I think it is worth reflecting on it. All of us on the committee were inundated with emails. We all know what a huge issue it became. Unfortunately with a lot of things in political life these days, it seems like there is a huge division. A lot of us felt the division. Farmers are for live exports and then there are the other people. It was not like that at all. I always felt that there was much more common ground regarding a deep commitment from people and certainly from the farming community about the welfare of livestock. But there was this image of whether animal welfare is a priority. There are also the ethical issues which are very important, particularly for a lot of young people. What degree of prominence should these issues be given considering there is a perception of a divide? How should those issues be integrated into the courses and how do we address the image problem?

Mr Linnegar : Regarding the focus on issues which I regard as being closer to social licence more generally—connecting consumers with their food might be another way of explaining that—from an NFF perspective and from my experience of talking to a lot of industries and parts of the sector, that issue is very much in the forefront of people's minds at the moment. This rural-urban divide, if you want to call it that, is not actually a divide, as I see it. It is not people in cities saying, 'I do not really like farmers or what they do;' it is more a question of experience and knowledge: 'We are not aware of what they do. We do not have any aunties or uncles on farms, so we do not have that experience.' In our sector, we have recognised that to try to make a difference there are various sectors putting resources and time into trying to change views and behaviours for their own sector—and they need to do that. What is required in the longer term is a far more team agriculture effort, if you want to call it that, to try to address these issues. The problem that we are finding is that we believe it is an issue from an agriculture perspective. We are trying to reach out to our city cousins to provide a greater understanding and have a discussion with them about it. When a very small percentage of Australia's population tries to reach out to a much larger percentage of the population, the resources required to do that, as you can imagine, are quite substantial. We need to be smarter and find some pathways that make it easier to connect with the urban audience, which is over 80 per cent of our population these days. It is not going to be on the front page of the paper. This is not how it is done. So it is front and centre and certainly front of mind at the moment. Efforts are underway right now to improve that right across the sector.

Senator RHIANNON: To go to something a little bit more specific, considering there have been enormous changes in TAFE in terms of how it operates and its funding, I am interested in how that has affected the availability and access to certificate courses and whether this is something you engage with very much.

Mr Duggan : User choice is an issue that RTOs being opened up to competition will no doubt have to get across, such as TAFE. Also, on the tertiary side, the uncapping of fees or incentives for tertiary students to enter into particular qualifications, is going to be an issue for educators to overcome, particularly when the salaries on exit are not on the higher end.

Senator RHIANNON: So do you see that mainly as an issue of resources or is it policy changes that are needed?

Mr Duggan : We would suggest that, where an industry has attrition away to the mining industry and the higher salaries, government would need to offer employer incentives and also student incentives to enter into these courses.

Senator RHIANNON: How advanced is your work on that?

Mr Duggan : We have had some input into the deans of agriculture on the tertiary side and we will wait and see how it plays out in the VET sector considering the number of changes that are actually underway at the moment. We had a meeting with DAFF and the department of innovation last week to discuss these issues.

Senator RHIANNON: So these are ongoing discussions are they?

Mr Duggan : Yes.

Senator RHIANNON: Is there anything more that you would like to share with us about that in terms of any recommendations we should be picking up to assist in that area?

Mr Duggan : I suppose I would just reiterate that our proposal for the RDC affectively forms a working group to work through these issues. I would not suggest that the current changes in the VET sector will show any evidence that we could present to the committee today. That will come over a period of time.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay. We will come back to that. Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Gentlemen, in your executive summary you made the observation that as Australians we abrogate our responsibility to future generations if we do not provide them with the mechanisms to understand and excite them as to the value of food and fibre production. We have touched on this. There is an interesting disconnect between the production and the consumption, which seems to be a wide void. Yet almost the most popular thing on television these days are actually programs associated with processing that food and putting it in front of consumers. Politics and politicians are driven by the community. It seems to me that possibly governments of both persuasions over the last 10 or 15 years have not perhaps allocated the amount of time, effort, resources and concentration that the industry and the sector deserved, with the whole issue of food security, not just in Australia but in the Asia-Pacific region, and the Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was to halve poverty by 2015, which we have absolutely no capacity to do. What would your recommendation to this committee be about how we can re-engage the parliamentary political process in putting this whole issue back in its rightful place in the centre of proceedings and not out on the periphery?

Mr Linnegar : Perhaps you have touched on it, Senator. The avenue to that is probably through a focus on food, in which agriculture, of course, plays a pretty vital part. As to how that translates to the political process, we have seen latterly from the government a focus on the National Food Plan, which I think is a positive start, a positive way to go, but it is how that translates right through the value chain that becomes pretty important to us. Having a showcase in Parliament House of what we can produce and getting relevant parliamentarians to connect through that way, through their stomachs, might be one way of doing it! But I think, perhaps more seriously, we need to take that concept a whole lot further. Starting with food I think is probably the avenue, and it is probably the avenue through to consumers as well.

CHAIR: The reality is that it is not just an agricultural issue, is it? It is a defence issue. Most of the conflicts around the world at the moment have their origins in the availability of reliable food. It is a trade issue in terms of free trade agreements. I gave a paper two weeks ago in Tokyo on food security in the Asia-Pacific. The average age of Japanese farmers is 67 years, yet they still have all these restrictive practices associated with food imports. Japanese people came to me and said, 'If we don't stop this we're going to starve.' We are not engaging with this. It is a foreign affairs issue. I congratulate your organisation for being as active as you are out there in the releases that you put out, but it just seems to me that we need first to raise the profile in this place from all sides and see it flow, because if we do not it will be on the periphery. Is that reasonable?

Mr Linnegar : I think it is entirely reasonable. Let us not forget that it is also an issue about access to land, resources, water and a whole heap of other things. It has just never been approached as an issue of: can we continue to feed ourselves, provide high-quality, fresh product and play a role in feeding the rest of the world, and what does it take to actually achieve that end? We have got so used to having plentiful food here that development takes place and food might be right down the bottom of the agenda when we are considering that. I think that between the Food Plan, the issues of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, mining and coal seam gas, the trade issues you mention and a whole host of others there is a growing recognition that some of this needs to start with food rather than finish with food as a focus. So I agree with where you have come from.

CHAIR: What, if anything, can industry do to try and bring some influence to the university sector now, at the tertiary level, to reverse this trend or at least arrest the trend of the decline in agriculture and agribusiness courses? We know what government can do and we know that throwing money at things might work, but can industry be more vocal at senior decision-making levels in the university sector in impressing on them the need, even if the per capita value does not seem to be as high as it is for students in other faculties? Is there anything industry can be doing better?

Mr Linnegar : Yes, there is. As you probably know, we have been engaging with the university sector to start that process or to do more there. I think Brian may wish to comment, but you have said yourself that the agricultural science course that I did is no longer there. It is simply not there. It is not offered. I guess either we rail against that and try to get these things reinstated or we seek greater flexibility so that agriculture becomes a more prominent part of other science and related courses. Perhaps that might be another way to go. But, Brian, you may wish to comment.

Mr Duggan : The obvious suggestion would be career paths, with industry engaging with students at a very early stage, through primary, secondary and into tertiary but then also into careers so that there is a clear outcome when you finish your tertiary qualification. That would be an easy fix. It is effectively all the parties sitting down and working a roadmap through or making the titles more attractive to the younger generation. That is some of the feedback that we have received, that the job titles are in the past and not in the future. We need to—

Senator BOYCE: Can you give us an example of that, Mr Duggan?

Mr Duggan : By way of example, the current titles in the pastoral award include 'farmhand'. There are no catchy titles. The deans have recently launched a new website which is aimed at doing that. I suppose it is about attracting generation X and generation Y to a title and a career in the industry.

Senator BOYCE: 'Crop development assistant' or something like that; is that what we need?

Mr Duggan : Yes. The training packages and modern awards are very much in the past, whereas industry has different, more progressive titles they are suggesting.

CHAIR: Just following on from that topic—and we will hear from the Primary Industry Education Fund today—on Friday evening I sat and listened to 25 presentations from the young people who had gone through the PICSE program in Perth. You always hear how agriculture is not sexy. These 25 young people were jumping out of their skin with the enthusiasm with which they had spent the time together and separately working on neural pathways in sharks and having their hands on electron microscopes. One of them had done a stack of work with one of the scientists on bee populations and the social fabric. That is something that we need to work on collaboratively to get rid of this nonsense about agriculture being boring and not sexy.

You were talking about flexibility earlier. In our own state in Western Australia—and obviously in other states it is the same—it is fly-in fly-out. Are we missing an opportunity in the sense that when the people are flown out they have time on their hands? The vast majority of them that you speak to know very well why they are there—they are there to get $300,000 or $400,000 together, hopefully, and do something else with it. In many instances it is the first time they have been outside urban Australia and they really enjoy their experience in rural and regional Australia. Is that an opportunity, training wise? We could be directing a lot of these people towards picking up skills and training in agriculture, both in their fly-out time and particularly once they leave the mining industry and could look to this form of employment? Is that something that anyone has looked at?

Mr Linnegar : I am not aware of whether anyone has looked at it in any detail, but I definitely think it is an opportunity. They get, as you say, experience in and familiarity with the regions they are going to. It is also what Brian referred to earlier in terms of flexibility. We need to be more flexible to take advantage of those sorts of opportunities, even down to people doing conservation volunteer work, going out of Sydney and Melbourne onto farms and into regions, to feel good about doing something. From one end of the scale to the other I think there are opportunities there, but I am not aware of anybody greatly looking into that area.

Mr Duggan : We had a meeting in November with Minister Evans and we proposed the establishment of a training organisation outside Australia to feed into the Pacific seasonal workers scheme because there are the same issues that were before the Senate in the minerals industry with the fly-in fly-out. With the recent approval by the government of the Pacific seasonal workers we perceive that, if government were to be proactive in training overseas workers to enter the market job-ready, it would ease the uptake and the ongoing system. We found the government's decision was very much welcomed, but we seek to engage with government to finetune that.

CHAIR: Time is against us, but it is obvious from the breadth of questions there is a lot to be gained. On behalf of the committee I thank you very much for your presentation.