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Agriculture opinion

Sowing the seeds to a better future

Despite its relatively small share of the total GDP, agriculture is an important sector in the South African economy as it remains a signi?cant provider of employment, especially in the rural areas, and a major earner of foreign exchange.
Even with this, the agricultural industry faces a range of challenges, including climate change and global food shortages, which are increasing the labour and skill needs in agriculture industries. Securing an adequate supply of suitably skilled labour is vital in optimising Africa's agricultural productivity. Improving the skill level of the agriculture workforce is essential to enhancing innovation, strengthening competitiveness, boosting resilience and developing a larger capacity for the agriculture industry to capitalise on opportunities and contribute to global food security.

Impediments to meeting the industry's skills shortages include low levels of industry participation in education and training, low numbers of undergraduates and graduates in tertiary agriculture courses, poor awareness of agricultural career pathways and the limited capacity of the current education and training system to deliver innovative training solutions.

Although government, industry, education institutions and career service providers are responding to labour and skills shortages in agriculture at national, state and regional levels, the approaches are somewhat fragmented and uncoordinated.

Given the complexity of the agriculture workforce, skills and training issues, a strategic and integrated approach between government and industry is crucial to addressing these issues. Challenges such as the global financial crisis, food security and climate change have created some uncertainty about future labour market trends, but the skills and labour demands of the agriculture industry are expected to grow, particularly given the long-term demographic trends.

Misconception of the industry

In addition to this, the seasonal labour demands and remote or regional employment locations inhibit the provision of attractive and competitive full-time employment and salary packages; the misconception that the industry is made up of uneducated producers who do not care about sustainability and are harming the environment through poor land and water management practices; agriculture is perceived to be an industry which is prone to disasters and heavily reliant on government assistance; it has low prestige due to the common belief that agricultural employment is necessarily manual labour with limited (if any) skill requirements, that may not provide secure on-going work or opportunities to develop and advance careers; the limited education about agriculture, which has led to an emerging generation of adults who do not appreciate the importance of agriculture to the national economy, or the nature of agricultural careers; the awareness of agricultural career opportunities within the industry may not necessarily result from a lack of available information about careers, but rather difficulties in appropriately targeting the information; young people leaving rural areas for better social and career options as they consider they are under-valued in rural communities and feel that poor accessibility and limited transportation in many rural and remote areas contribute to isolation and frustration; limited access to medical services, local education, appropriate accommodation, and good quality information technology and telecommunications services; there is a lack of emphasis on education and training in the industry; the demand for new skills; technological and scientific developments and new regulatory requirements are constantly demanding new job roles and skills such as managing biosecurity, food safety, and trade. Skills in product and market development will also be in demand to facilitate the uptake of new knowledge and research outcomes.

To remain globally competitive, the agriculture industry will also need skills and resources to survive, adapt and grow. Enterprises should develop skills in leadership, advocacy and training as well as technical and management skills. Other skills such as international markets, risk management, strategic thinking, negotiation, decision-making, financial planning, human resource management, environmental management, governance, strategic planning, administration including human resources, financial management, legal matters, income generation, diversity development, partnerships and collaboration; and evaluation are also becoming increasingly important.

Absence of good people management skills

There is also an absence of good people management skills within the industry which is having a significant impact on retaining employees. The majority of producers still see their primary responsibility as being to oversee workers performing set duties on the farm with little or no consideration or responsibility taken for other employer/employee aspects such as performance management and staff development etc. Poor management skills of farmers (e.g. poor communication, lack of feedback and recognition of achievements), fails to create a work environment that engages employees or encourages them to develop their skills and follow a career in the industry. This results in high staff turnover and a loss of knowledge and skills from the workplace.

Given the pressures being placed on businesses to sustain their performance and productivity growth, there is an increasing need for employers to develop and implement appropriate workforce planning strategies within their enterprise. There is little evidence of these skills within the agriculture industry. This places employers and businesses at risk of not managing issues such as the ageing workforce, fluctuating labour markets and changing service demands. As well as overcoming deficiencies in workforce planning skills within the industry, there is a lack of commitment from management to workforce planning, a lack of responsibility and ownership for workforce issues and a focus on quick fixes or relying on the same strategies to deal with new problems.

Securing an adequate supply of suitably skilled labour is important for optimising Africa's agricultural productivity and output. The workforce not only needs to be large enough to enable the industry to remain productive and competitive, it must also have the right skills and training to allow the industry to grow and improve its performance by becoming more innovative and responsive to change.

Greater industry ownership and responsibility needed

Greater industry ownership and responsibility is essential to attract new entrants and retaining quality staff is as important to its future growth and productivity as is its economic survival and market development. Industry's own actions will have the greatest impact on addressing agriculture workforce issues. As such, industry must continue to take responsibility and ownership for attracting people to the industry and for ensuring their career development. Industry needs to take a more active role in promoting agriculture and career opportunities in agriculture. Producers should be advocates for the industry by delivering positive messages about working in agriculture. Producers should be encouraged to have a greater involvement with schools, other education institutions and communities and to participate in career expos. There also needs to be better promotion of the benefits that education and training can provide to a farm enterprise. Increasing access to industry traineeships or cadetships should also help to encourage more young people to take up a career in the industry and move into rural and regional areas.

There is considerable effort and resources being put into understanding and responding to workforce skills and training issues in agriculture. There is also a clear commitment from industry and government to addressing these issues, however, the work is fragmented and disjointed and involves multiple stakeholders, strategies and advisory groups without any obvious coordination between them. It needs a careful assessment of the existing organisations, frameworks, structures and initiatives to look at what can be built upon. A more strategic and national approach is needed which would enable the development of a long-term strategy and which would require both industry and government at national, state and regional levels to be engaged in and help deliver.
    
 

About the author

Debbie Lieberthal is MD of Umkhonto Labour Holdings.
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