Workforce challenges are plaguing a raft of Australian industries, with employers, both small and large, reporting job advertisements are attracting few applications - or no response at all in many cases. Those businesses that suffered the most under COVID-19 restrictions are now faced with workforce shortages impacting on their ability to return to pre-pandemic business levels.
The federal Government's fledgling agriculture-specific visa program is welcome and long overdue. The Government says it delivers on its commitment to a "broad ranging visa" to support the goal of agriculture reaching $100 billion in value by 2030, with plans to expand the scheme into the future.
Another area within agriculture struggling to attract - and retain - the employees it requires is the farm machinery sector, with its needs a little more complex than those for which the new ag visa program is aimed.
Encouraging school-leavers to take up a mechanical apprenticeship is one thing, but there are challenges that go beyond anything individual companies and businesses can address. The fact the agriculture industry is centred almost entirely on rural and regional Australia presents a set of challenges in itself, related to tyranny of distance, smaller communities with limited services, fewer recreational activities - and the list goes on.
Of course, we who call the regions home know its advantages, but the fact remains we need people from outside regional Australia to help fill critical roles and we need ways to encourage them to relocate, and then stay.
A worthwhile initiative in this area is the National Farmers' Federation's AgCareerstart pilot, a 24-month program for school leavers to try a job in agriculture and experience the unique opportunities the sector offers. The NFF is encouraging both interested gap year participants and on-farm hosts to register their details at https://www.agcareerstart.com.au/home
Governments can offer further assistance, too, by continuing to build on relocation incentives, in all forms. Not one-off, ad hoc programs, but a structured scheme to assist all sectors of agriculture build the workforce.
A big step in the right direction is the launch of the Community Perceptions and Worker Experiences' Project, which emerged from a federal Government grant in 2021 for new research into the agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries' capacity to attract and retain workers.
The ultimate aim is to create an evidence base for understanding community perceptions, experiences in, and demand for, these occupations, with the hope the research findings will identify measures to help address workforce challenges.
There is certainly a lot of cause for optimism in Australian ag at present, but there's no doubt workforce challenges are quickly souring the mood and the time to act is now.
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