Prioritise labour and skills shortages or suffer the consequences

The farming sector must prioritise the labour and skills shortages we face or suffer consequences warns NFU Scotland’s Skills Development Policy Manager George Jamieson.

The recent and very informative Exeter University publication analysing the issue of labour and skill in the farming sector – read more at: - mirrors many issues already identified by NFU Scotland.

The study, by Dr Caroline Nye and Professor Matt Lobley from the University of Exeter, commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Farmers (WCF) and funded by the WCF and The John Oldacre Foundation, says farms will need to become more competitive and attractive as places to work and the industry itself needs to improve its self-promotion.

This is a serious issue which is not new and while exacerbated by Brexit, it urgently needs the attention of the farming sector in collaboration with government and education and skill providers.

There are many issues.  The first is that, as an industry, we have been slow to realise the urgency of the challenge to recruit and train staff, now and in the future.  In addition, government, government agencies and the education professionals have not responded to or recognised the massive contribution the farming sector plays and will play in food security, climate change, biodiversity, tourism, rural communities etc. 

What should be clear is that all stakeholders must genuinely collaborate to address the shortage of staff with the required skills. All businesses are built on the foundation of skilled and motivated people, none more so than modern farming.

This new analysis provides excellent research findings from a UK basis, often with statistics from England, but our own Skills Development Scotland has also produced recent research of value.

This indicates that, in addition to the current shortage of labour and skills, there is expected to be a need to replace as many as 60% of the labour force in Scottish farming in the next decade.  That is due to an aging work force, fewer young people and competition from other sectors.

NFUS has recently held 15 focus groups covering all the regions of Scotland and all the individual farming sectors to understand more fully the issues farmers face in staffing and skills requirements. 

The meetings were consistent in indicating genuine concerns in retaining, attracting and replacing staff at all levels of ability and skill. While different regions and sectors had their particular problems and solutions, there was genuine concern about who will work on farms in future years and where they will come from. The problems are in casual and full-time workers, and we need solutions that are based on practicalities and needs, not UK government rhetoric. 

This recent Exeter University research document and NFUS research has identified where we can make progress. There is an acknowledgement that our industry must ‘sell itself’ more as a crucial sector which has significance to all.  That requires skilled and able people, who should be rewarded appropriately.  

There were also clear concerns that schools did not promote farming as career, underestimating the opportunities at all levels of ability. 

Tertiary education was also identified as being an area where there is scope for improvement in promoting and offering courses and opportunities for young people alongside upskilling for existing and new staff in partnership with industry. 

NFUS has also identified the genuine problems facing small rural businesses, who lack time and resource to be informed about the various opportunities available to support training. The ability to support young people in accommodation and transport requires careful and creative thinking, while education and skill providers need recognition of the costs of rural education.

NFUS strongly believes that the very clear message to all in the farming sector, is that we must address all these challenges.  We are working with the Skills for Farming Group, and government and its agencies to raise the issue with urgency and the need to recognise the fundamental place of agriculture to society.

Author: George Jamieson

Date Published:

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About The Author

George Jamieson

George Jamieson graduated from SRUC in 1977, then ran the family farming partnership specialising in pedigree breeding and commercial milk production, cereal, beef and sheep enterprises and environmental schemes. In 2001 George left the family business to work for the Scottish Governments Rural Affairs Department office in Dumfries before promotion to management in the Hamilton office, covering all the agriculture schemes, and secondment to policy implementation in Edinburgh. From the civil service George moved to SRUC to work as consultant with SRUC in the Dumfries Office, covering business, technical and subsidy/grants, with specialist involvement in dairy and the Rural Development Programs. Joining NFUS in 2008 as Milk Policy Manager, after 10 years he now has the policy responsibility for Education and Skills in the land based sectors.

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