Agriculture begging for graduates

KASHKA TUNSTALL
Last updated 12:25 29/06/2013
agriculture
BRUCE MERCER/Fairfax NZ

Short supply: Tom Woutersen (seated) and Thomas Macdonald are two of a small pool of skilled agricultural-based graduates the private sector is desperate for.

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It ranks as New Zealand's most productive, innovative sector.

Entry level positions get an annual pay packet of $55,000, roughly 40 per cent more than the average arts graduate entering the workforce will earn.

Progression is a given and, with shortages in the field internationally, graduates end up having a global career.

The problem is, no one wants to study it.

Agriculture, which John Key has called the backbone of New Zealand's economy, is an industry with massive growth potential.

With a steadily growing global population to feed, the agricultural sector is poised to boom, but a shortage of skilled workers may hold it back.

The number of university graduates in agriculture-related fields has dropped in recent years.

Of the 22,820 undergraduate degrees awarded to domestic students across the country in 2011, only 68 were for agricultural sciences and 90 were for farm and agribusiness management students.

Meanwhile, performing arts turned out 650 students, philosophy 424, and mathematics 334.

Dairy NZ estimates an annual need of 1250 agriculture-related graduates to keep the industry healthy and growing.

Jacqueline Rowarth thinks she's got a few answers.

The professor of agribusiness at Waikato University, Rowarth is on a mission to make agriculture a more appealing choice for school leavers.

Parents and teachers guiding teens into a vocation need to change their tune from "What you want to do?" to "What type of life do you want?" she says.

This is a generation raised on the ethos of "follow your passions and you'll never work a day in your life".

But she believes it's a faulty method for success and a short-sighted attitude that hurts both New Zealand's economy and the generation itself.

She has been going into high schools across the country to talk about the varied opportunities within the sector.

With international and urban equity flowing into farms and changing ownership structures, management skill sets are key.

Add to that research and development opportunities, technology advances and food processing, transport and packaging, and the scope of the sector opens up.

But Rowarth says she never pushes students into agriculture.

She simply lets them in on the facts and they make their decision.

Research says salary, status, security and variety are the top priorities for the work force.

It seems like Rowarth will have an easy sell.

She does recommend one thing: Ask what the world needs and how you can align a career to it.

"Because then you always have a job and then it will become your passion," she says.

"It's when people become involved in things that they become passionate about it. That's what the research says."

Tom Woutersen, a student of Rowarth's, grew up on a dairy farm in Cambridge.

After he finished high school he went into tertiary education studying sports and nutrition science. But he quickly found that job opportunities for graduates in the field were limited, so he changed paths and got a Bachelor of Science in Agricultural Studies at Massey University. "It's the best decision I've ever made. There are so many opportunities."

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Now he has returned to the Waikato and has just signed up to do his masters in agribusiness.

Once he changed over to agriscience, he benefited from larger scholarships with a small pool of possible recipients.

For the last two years of his degree, Woutersen picked up $10,000 annually and he's sitting on another scholarship from Ballance Agri Nutrients now worth $5000.

Fellow Waikato University agribusiness student Thomas Macdonald is also on a scholarship with Ballance Agri Nutrients.

Macdonald tackled agribusiness from the outset of his tertiary studies and comes from a finance base.

But he was also brought up on a dairy farm and it's this upbringing that has benefited these two; they know what urban kids don't.

Macdonald and Woutersen both say their high school experience didn't inform them of potential careers in agriculture - their knowledge of the sector comes solely from growing up on a farm.

"There's a big disconnect with what we know - that there can be a career in ag - and what other people know," Macdonald says.

"The amount of times I've told people what I study and people say ‘Oh, so where's that going to get you? Are you going to milk cows?'

"I'm not going to milk cows . . . we need to define what agribusiness is for students coming out of schools."

"It's easy to get passionate about industries where you can see a future."

Schools push agriculture as a substitute for people interested in science and do not put as much academic weight on it, Macdonald says.

And it's something that needs to change.

He says the sector, which makes up 70 per cent of the country's export market - essentially carrying a 20 per cent share of GDP - needs the best and brightest and that interest starts in secondary school.

It is this idea that has Rowarth supporting reforms in the high school curriculum to include agriculture throughout national certificate science subjects.

"The salaries are going to go up, the news will start trickling down, but the trouble is the gap between the fourth year in varsity and getting it into the schools when they are making the decisions."

"The more agri becomes part of the curriculum, the more people will understand agri is not a locked in field," Macdonald says.

Fonterra has been employing graduates for cadetship-type programmes for over 40 years.

Today, the roles recruited for are far more varied, says Fonterra's early career and talent adviser, Caroline Casey.

She recruits graduates across fields from the country's top universities and training institutes for the company.

"You name it, we recruit for it," she says.

Fonterra received 2400 applications for the first rounds of recruitment this year.

Business graduates snapped up 27 roles. Science, technology and engineering students took a further 18.

Graduates are an invaluable resource for Fonterra, Casey says.

"The diversity of thinking this generation brings in is pretty critical, changes in technology are significant and we need people in the long term.

"Our intent is about developing future business leaders."

But Casey says it has been clear of late that the skills needed are in short supply and good candidates are few.

Especially going into the universities.

That is compounded, she says, by trying to convince what skilled grads there are to stay in the country, with a global shortage drawing them across the Tasman and beyond.

"We've got a real challenge for New Zealand around how do we compete with the likes of Australian mineral and chemical companies offering big money.

"We can't compete on salary but can offer you a great experience to set up for a career."

Fonterra isn't going into high schools to recruit at that level yet, but Casey says it is only a matter of time.

"For us the priority is universities. Over time it will be reaching back in schools and that's at a regional level."

Where does the onus lie in making the sector more attractive for school leavers?

She says it's a collaborative approach between government, industry, schools and parents.

"It makes sense to partner so as to not duplicate time and effort," she says.

"There needs to be an opportunity to learn more what about is possible in high schools because they can see where it could lead to . . . where they can make the links all the way through."

Ultimately, Rowarth believes the impetus is on the Government to see where the country is struggling to find skilled workers and make changes in secondary and tertiary studies.

"I think the Government could do a heap and it's showing where the opportunities are . . . we're absolutely not doing the right thing."

She recommends going back to the skilled migrant list, on which agriculture features heavily, and then cutting fees for the corresponding qualifications.

"I think in agriculture, if the government put up $15,000-plus scholarships there would be a riot to get them and then you get the cohort effect - "Wow, that's valuable, I'll do it."

But Rowarth is not confident that will happen.

"Not unless you have a ground swell to say to the government, ‘This is what you can do.'

"We've got to spread the word."

- Waikato Times

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