Roads and rail are great, but people & skills need cash too

Roads and rail are great, but people & skills need cash too


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PANEL: Regional Australia Institute's Amanda Barwick, Moree Plains Shire Council's Mark Connolly, NSW Farmers policy director Kathy Rankin, Gwydir Valley Irrigators’ Lou Gall, and Bellata farmer George Kirkby at Moree.

PANEL: Regional Australia Institute's Amanda Barwick, Moree Plains Shire Council's Mark Connolly, NSW Farmers policy director Kathy Rankin, Gwydir Valley Irrigators’ Lou Gall, and Bellata farmer George Kirkby at Moree.

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People need investment too, lest we have a bunch of new toys but no-one to use them

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IN terms of good news, bricks and mortar – or steel and bitumen – rank high for regional communities.  

But while we should absolutely celebrate new infrastructure, it is crucial we do not forget what is needed to steer the ship.

NSW Farmers policy director Kathy Rankin says our people need investment too, lest we have a bunch of new toys and tools, but no-one to use them effectively. 

“When we talk about infrastructure spending we talk about hard things like buildings, roads but I think there needs to be more spending on the skills and the capabilities of the people, so it is not an empty shell,” she told Fairfax Media’s Moree Next Crop forum this month. 

“From my perspective I think we have spent a lot of time focusing on building roads, building aeroplanes... And that is very important.

“But the skill capacity for people to be able come in and interact in the first place, but then also be able to deliver the jobs. The people funding is critically important.”

Ms Rankin was one of five Moree community panelists at the fifth Next Crop Forum earlier this month. 

She joined Regional Australia Institute editor Amanda Barwick, Gwydir Valley Irrigators’ Lou Gall, Bellata farmer George Kirkby and Moree Plains Shire Council economic and community development officer Mark Connolly in taking the pulse of the community. 

As her Association’s policy director for rural affairs and business, economics and trade, Ms Rankin told the forum it was crucial whole communities were central to funding arrangements and roll-out of projects. 

“One of the things I have felt over my career is quite often government says ‘I’ve got a good idea of what’s going on, I’ve got a project, here’s a bucket of money’,” she said.

“Then they ask: ‘Communities, tell us what you want funded from within that bucket’. Quite often though government hasn’t necessarily gone back and checked what the outcomes are, what are the things that need addressing in the community, and how the money is used to fix that problem.”

“That’s not to say that all decisions made within communities or by government are wrong, but in some communities it has backfired because they haven’t been able to have a voice (on the issue).”

She said individuals had a chance to band together and give better grassroots direction to ensure they get what they need. 

“In having those conversations we begin to develop a grassroots response, a community that starts to tell government - local state and federal - about what they need,” she said. 

“As an individual you often feel like you’re one voice in the wilderness. But connected conversations can focus on what the issues are and what options have we got to solve them.” 

New jobs mean automation isn’t so bad

THE march of innovation and technology is changing the way we live and work – including how we farm. 

But the rise of the machines does not necessarily mean Judgement Day awaits our rural workforce. 

Gwydir Valley Irrigators’ project officer Lou Gall told the Next Crop Forum our universities were starting to cotton on to the fact that the skills needed for modern agriculture extend far beyond the paddock.

Just because someone might not be sitting in the cab of the tractor anymore doesn’t mean the job evaporates.

It just changes the focus to helping producers maximise value, she said.

“As we move forward in agriculture there are a lot of jobs there that weren’t there previously. Regional areas are a place where you can work as an engineer, in IT, in robotics. 

“I think we are a way away from begin fully autonomous, but it means we are adding a little bit more value to the person who is working on the farm. You are still going to need people who know how to irrigate, for example.”

Attracting people with the right skillset to ag, and to the region, would be key, she said. 

“The autonomous tractor, instead of having someone in the driver’s seat, bored, or instead of someone having to get up at 2am and change a siphon… there’s lifestyle benefits that come with it.

“If we can get those software designers for what the people are doing the automation. 

“If they can base themselves regionally and are more closely linked to the end user, there is huge potential for more jobs.”

Ms Gall nominated the region’s nut industry as having particular potential to value-add, including the development of local processing capability.

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