Sunday, 15 July 2012

Few workers to harvest

Michael Inman
FORGET about a wife. Australian farmers want workers.
The big wet has broken the worst drought in a century, but the resulting boom has exposed a failing labor market.
The bush is in desperate need of workers, from agricultural pilots to farm hands, agronomist to machinery operators, and the situation will only get worse come harvest time later this year.
The impact has been exacerbated by the mining boom, with skilled agricultural workers taking the high-paying employment offered by the resources sector.
The federal government has reacted by introducing visas for skilled work and the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot scheme.
Experts said the problem extends beyond the labour shortage, affecting research, banking and education.
But National Farmers Federation president Jock Laurie said the shortfall would just force innovation in the sector.
Agriculture was worth $306.1 billion to the Australian economy in the 2011-12 financial year, with exports totaling $37 billion.
The sector was projected to grow a further 1.6 per cent in the next five-years.
Yet there were 307,000 people employed in Australian agriculture in 2010-11, down from 325,000 in 2009-10.
The shortfall has forced the agriculture sector to look abroad for employees.
Recruitment company Ag Workforce has been forced to go global in its search for agricultural personnel.
The Queensland-based employment agency advertises worldwide to fill the shortfall, with about 70 per cent of its placements filled by international labour.
Ag Workforce recruitment manager Hugh Strahorn said agricultural wages could not compete with mines.
''We advertise in ag colleges all over the world because we can't get enough Australians.
''Our biggest nationality group would be Irish, they're coming over in droves.''
Mr Strahorn said many farmers had moved to labour hire deals or only offer short-term contracts for harvests as a result.
Mr Laurie said importing labour on a short-term basis was part of the innovation in a constantly changing sector.
''Innovation is constantly being driven anyway but when you can't get any labour you've got to find other ways to do it, whether that's with new technology or different ways of doing things.
''The work's still got to be done so they've got to find ways to do it. The international workforce is very mobile at the moment and it's part of that innovation.''
But Curtin University agricultural economist Associate Professor Roy Murray-Prior said skills were being lost in the process.
A decade of drought had an impact on the number of people wanting to get involved in agriculture, with many quitting the sector because they saw opportunities elsewhere.
Many universities are closing their agricultural schools as a result of the dwindling interest.
Dr Murray-Prior said 2012 was the last year for Curtin's agriculture courses.
He said the loss of skills would affect the long-term productivity of the sector, to the tune of millions of dollars annually.
National Farmers Federations figures show the knowledge intensive industry needs about 6000 graduates a year but receives fewer than 800.
''It's broader than just farm labour,'' Dr Murray-Prior said. ''If companies can't find people to give the right advice then the information the farmers get won't be as good as it could be.
''It would affect the farmers quality and yield.
''It's right along the supply chain, from fertiliser, input supplies, research and even decisions by banks.''
Original article here

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