50% of Australia’s agricultural professionals set to retire in the next 5 years

Australia is set to lose up to half of its agricultural science and business professionals in the next five years, industry leaders have warned.  As scientists predict the dawn of a new agricultural revolution, up to 50 per cent of the industry’s professionals are approaching retirement age.


Employers say they are already losing some of their most senior staff and in some cases have been forced to bring in staff from overseas to address the skills shortage.

Professor Jim Pratley, the secretary of the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture, says coupled with declining university enrolments, the loss of senior agricultural professionals means Australia is seeing a brain drain when it is needed most.

“A generation is coming to the end of their working life and there’s a bit of a gap there in terms of their successors,” he said.

“That gap’s pretty wide in terms of the availability of replacements. For example I know a number of universities have been trying to employ lecturers in agronomy and it’s really, really hard to find people who are suitable.”

Earlier this month in a speech to the ABARE Outlook Conference, CSIRO board member and former primary industries minister John Kerin highlighted an urgent need to address this “very alarming situation”.

“Government agricultural agencies are being cut down, agricultural research and development is lessening, agricultural education is slimming down quite rapidly at tertiary level and physical infrastructure is being under-invested,” he said.

“This is at a time when we are facing unprecedented agricultural production and environmental challenges.”

Professor Pratley says the state and federal agricultural agencies agree that a massive loss of senior professionals is a potential scenario for the industry.

When contacted by the ABC the Federal Department for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and several state agencies said they were aware of the projection and had funding, grants and graduate programs in place to address the situation.

Business reality

 It is a situation already being felt by businesses.

Ruth Trench-Thiedeman is the people and performance manager at Landmark, one of Australia’s largest agribusiness companies.

She says the outlook for a huge drop in agricultural professionals is a concern for the industry.

“We have these problems really on a day-to-day basis and they’re caused by a number of factors,” she said.

“We’re worried about it. We have many people who are on the brink of retirement age. That’s a concern for us. We also have turnover that’s higher than we would like as well which means we’re always looking to find new people in various roles.”

Ms Trench-Thiedeman says there is a loss of experience when senior staff retire that cannot be filled by graduates.

“There’s a huge a loss of intellectual property and just that experience. While we have a graduate intake you can’t buy the experience at one end with the graduates coming at the other end. It’s something that has to be developed up,” she said.

“One of the issues we have is that our customers become very attached to those people who’ve got the experience and who can just answer their questions and provide solutions to their problems really quickly.”

She says Landmark has already been forced to employ agronomists from overseas because the expertise has not been available in Australia.

But she says looking overseas for employees is impossible in some cases because of the unique profile of some of Australia’s agricultural areas.

Ms Trench-Thiedman says all businesses in the industry are struggling to hold onto experienced staff.

“The issue is more around how do you keep the good people in the business? Then you’ve got the issues like increasing salaries or providing incentives for people either around performance or actually staying in the business for a period of time,” she said.

“You have to be awfully careful though because each time you increase the salary you’re actually making it more unaffordable for everybody in the rural space.

“We’ve found that with the mining industry. They were offering huge salaries for apparently quite minor sorts of jobs. We had a number of people move in Western Australia and Queensland, moving over to various mining companies on salaries that we couldn’t possibly compete with. Double their salaries. We couldn’t possibly compete with that.”

The CSIRO has warned that as population growth and climate change challenge food sustainability, scientific research in agriculture will be needed more than ever.

But Ms Trench-Thiedman says many of the specialist agriscientists needed to develop and implement new technologies may not be around.

“When you look at the technology of the future, you’re going to need really specialised people,” she said.

“You won’t be able to grow people to do that. You’re going to have to have people who are specially trained to really understand and interpret all the data.

“This is where you’ve got satellites actually mapping the pastures and showing you where the water is and what crops are growing where and giving all that sort of information that’s coming in, where is it best to grow what crop.”

Graduate decline

Meanwhile, Professor Pratley has also been researching the sharp decline agricultural graduates.

He says there are less than 800 graduates each year to fill the more than 2,000 agricultural jobs available to them.

Future Farmer’s Network chairman James Caracoussis says he is not surprised by the latest outlook for the agricultural workforce.

But Mr Caracoussis says if the projections were to come true, Australia would be in a lot of trouble.

He says filling the gap with overseas workers could be an option.

“When you look at especially say Asia, India, South America, they’re just going crazy in terms that their agricultural industries are growing massively and China’s probably a bit of a sleeping giant,” he said.

“So I’m not sure if migrant workers would be the quick fix or the solution. You could possibly toss a coin as to whether it’s the solution or whether it happens.”

Professor Pratley says agriculture loses many graduates to other industries.

“We’re probably losing them even out of the industry to other areas because people who are trained in agriculture can almost do anything,” he said.

“They’ve got very strong levels of multi-skilling and so people who do an agricultural degree are actually very employable even outside the industry.”

He says another worrying trend is that many jobs for agricultural graduates are based on what is called “soft money”.

“These days they are on what we call soft money, which is the money that the funding bodies provide and those tend to have three or four-year funding cycles,” he said.

“So they go into a job with only a three-year time horizon before they actually have to then find the next lot of money and that cycle continues.

“So we see quite an attrition of people who have started off in agricultural research, but head off to other places with a much more long-term tenure.”

Mr Kerin says this situation has made post graduates in agriculture “scarcer than hen’s teeth”. He blames the image of agriculture and community ignorance.

Professor Pratley agrees there has been a negative perception of the industry.

“There’s been a perception for quite a while that perhaps there are no jobs in agriculture, that the jobs aren’t that exciting, that the pay rates aren’t good enough and you perhaps don’t need educated people in the industry,” he said.

“But when we got the data together on this, the picture is actually quite different. It’s almost a reverse.

“There are a huge number of jobs out there and the industry desperately needs people with qualifications who take up what’s a really demanding and exciting profession.”

Via ABC News