Posted 10 February 2014
Greater contact with industry, though the use of industrial placements, the co-location of industry research facilities and knowledge-sharing all have a valuable role to play in this endeavour, by producing graduates who are able to make an earlier impact in the workplace. "
Harper Adams Vice Chancellor Dr David Llewellyn's speech concerning the agri-food industry's skills shortage, as given at the Sentry Conference 2014.
There is widespread concern in the agri-food sector about the supply of skills and the ability of industry to attract new entrants. The agri-food chain (from supply-side to retail) constitutes 14% of the UK’s workforce, employing 3.7m people, and offers fulfilling careers, especially for those with a good understanding of agricultural production.
Further education colleges and universities are reporting strong recruitment into agriculture courses, which implies that we should be seeing a greater balance between supply and demand in the higher-skilled end of the labour market. There are also well-rehearsed blockages (most notably access to land and finance) that might prevent some young people from setting up their own farm business at the early stage in their career, but which provide a pool of agricultural talent that is well-suited for employment elsewhere in the agri-food industry where many exciting opportunities exist. Yet, the pressure to find the right sort of people persists. What is really going on?
Businesses need a wide range of skills at different levels in order to grow and to provide succession for an ageing workforce. As other nations increasingly focus on higher-level skills development (technical, managerial, entrepreneurial and in innovation), the UK must be in a position to compete. A recent study for the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) revealed that increases in higher-skilled managerial and professional jobs were a major factor driving economic growth, acting as a catalyst for innovation and wider job creation.
Although numbers in agriculture and related subjects (sometimes called land-based subjects) are reportedly up, the long-term trend for a more closely defined group of subjects involved in agriculture and food production shows that undergraduate numbers in England declined sharply after 2001/02 and, in 2011/12, were not even back to 2001/02 levels. The picture for agriculture research students in England is equally challenging, with a 27% decline in student entrants in the period 2002/03 to 2011/12. It is not only industry that faces succession issues, but academia will have to work hard to find future generations of scientists able to teach agricultural systems, or conduct applied research, if a solution to UK research student support is not found, and demand for academic careers amongst agricultural students is not improved.
In the period to 2020 the UK faces a demographic downturn in people aged 18 to 20, typically the largest cohort of entrants in the UK university system. Add to this the finding in the NCUB research of greater early career mobility, especially in subjects such as agriculture where highly qualified people are able to move to jobs in other sectors, and the risks of a shortage of highly skilled young people looking for a career in agri-food businesses over the next decade could begin to multiply.
These factors point to significant opportunities for those people choosing to study agri-food subjects over the coming decade. At the same time, industry is actively seeking to engage with young people to ensure that they are aware of the wide range of job opportunities available in the sector, some of which can be seen in the career case studies at the website of the industry-led Brightcrop initiative (www.brightcrop.org.uk).
Universities, informed by industry and often working with the sector, are also addressing these issues, with a greater focus on developing skills for employment, together with their practical application. Greater contact with industry, though the use of industrial placements, the co-location of industry research facilities and knowledge-sharing all have a valuable role to play in this endeavour, by producing graduates who are able to make an earlier impact in the workplace.
A preliminary analysis of recent agriculture student experiences across a sample of higher education institutions shows, however, that where students feel better supported by academic staff there may be a relationship with higher employment rates and the “graduateness” of the jobs students secure. It may, therefore, be in the best longer-term interests of industry not only to address future recruitment through profile-raising schemes to help young people consider a career in the sector, but to also work closely with universities in securing those with the academic talent, and industry experience, necessary to educate the next generation of the agri-food workforce.
Dr David Llewellyn