All the talk is about technology, but what about the people? How do we train our workforce to deal with increasing complexity?
Investment in technology in agriculture has driven enormous productivity gains throughout history, with the pace of gain increasing exponentially in the 20th century through mechanisation.
A major part of these gains has been the reduction in the number of people required to operate modern farms, which in turn has reduced the proportion of the population in first world countries living in rural areas. Agricultural employers around the first world are now facing serious challenges in attracting people back to these areas to work.
Agricultural technology (agtech) is often seen as a potential solution to some of the labour challenges in agriculture, however this is not entirely accurate. Technology is great at taking over the simple repetitive tasks but often fails at the complex, and by introducing more technology, agricultural businesses can often become more complicated.
People looking for permanent jobs in agriculture are more likely to have no tertiary education and lack the skills to operate complex equipment. A comment often repeated overseas was that “it’s difficult to get skilled staff”, as opposed to staff. Technology is just a tool, and the return on investment (ROI) into it is entirely dependent on the capacity to operate those tools.
While recruiting skilled staff may be ideal for many farming businesses, there are a limited number of quality people actively looking for jobs. There is a competitive advantage for businesses that can actively train people well, and to do this well there has to be capacity to teach within the business.
While it is possible to outsource some aspects, most vocational training systems in Australia – and other western countries – rely on the workplace for the majority of the teaching.
Taking on unskilled trainees does not have to be complicated. It can be as simple as identifying the key attributes required for someone to get to the point where they can work independently for some of the time and then teach those skills. That in turn becomes the foundation for teaching further skills.
Along with developing the capacity to teach unskilled employees, increasing the scale of the business if the opportunity presents itself has a major benefit in terms of both improving workforce and applying technology. With greater scale brings greater job specialisation, ability to spread the cost of technology further and reduce the teaching load on any one person.
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