More action needed to attract young Tasmanians to agricultural sector

THE NEXT GENERATION: University of Tasmania Professor Janelle Allison is helping to put together a new practical curriculum for agriculture students, set to start next year.

THE NEXT GENERATION: University of Tasmania Professor Janelle Allison is helping to put together a new practical curriculum for agriculture students, set to start next year.

Over the course of this series two things have become clear - the opportunities in the agricultural industry are endless, and there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure the industry is attractive to young people. 

The Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture is punching above its weight, ranking in the top 200 in the Academic Ranking of World Universities for agriculture.

It was the only entry for the University of Tasmania for any category in the rankings, which were released in September.

Head of TIA’s School of Land and Food Holger Meinke said the TIA had been consistently recording about 40 enrolments for the past two years but said there was room for improvement.

“We’d really like to reach 50,” he said.

Professor Meinke said agriculture was experiencing what he termed a “third revolution” as new technology changed the way we farm food.

“Technology is taking away the manual labour-based jobs,” he said.

He said it was important to change public perception about the nature of employment opportunities in the sector.

“The skills needed in agriculture are a lot different today than they were 10 years ago … technology is replacing unskilled labour,” he said.

TIA offers two undergraduate degrees - a Bachelor of Science (Agriculture and Business) and a Bachelor of Agricultural Science.

The skills needed in agriculture are a lot different today than they were 10 years ago … technology is replacing unskilled labour. - Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture School of Land and Food head Holger Meinke

Professor Meinke said the curriculum was always being updated to ensure the degrees were skills based and would meet the changing demands of the industry.

He said enrolments had been up for the past three years and continue to grow.

“The food security issue has helped us because people are starting to realise that this is a huge social issue globally,” he said.

Another way the state government is trying to address the issue of the pathway between education and an agricultural career is through UTAS’s newly announced associate degrees.

UTAS will offer two new associate degrees in 2017, with the first one announced as an agribusiness degree.

The first crop of students will also be supported in their education if they enrol in the agribusiness associate degree after Tasmanian boot brand Blundstone announced $120,000 in scholarship funding.

UTAS Professor Janelle Allison has been appointed to roll out the new curriculum for these associate degrees.

In the process of designing the degrees, Professor Allison she the university interviewed about 150 businesses or people connected with agribusiness.

“A graduate in business might earn about $50,000 or $55,000, but you can be reasonably assured that the salary for an agribusiness graduate can be anything up to $20,000 more than that,” she said. 

“Demand is in unlikely areas such as the banking sector, commodities, trading – so it’s not all about farms.” 

Like so many other people who know the sector, Professor Allison has heard the murmuring that a career in agriculture was solely about working on the land. 

After speaking with many people, and helping the design the new courses, she found this was not the case.

“I think the biggest misconception is that people think that agribusiness, or anything that has the word agricultural in it, is about being on a farm … but I’m not suggesting that those tasks aren’t critical, they are essential,” she said. 

“If you were to be a farm manager, which is one of the things agribusiness could lead to, the opportunities in this day and age in terms of the type of farms, equipment, technology, and global interface mean that you are a multi-skilled professional.” 

In the new associate degrees, which have already received interest from future students, the curriculum will have two focuses – what is happening on the farm and what is happening around it. 

“Every discipline subject, which will be things like human resources, strategic management, marketing, agronomy, is paired with what we call a work-based experience,” Professor Allison said. 

“We have absolutely stood firm about the need for the work-based experience because that’s what industry is telling us that they want, and we think it’s a wonderful way to prepare people for what it is to be a practitioner. 

“We’ve developed about 14 different types of workplace experiences, from field work, to labs, to simulators.” 

Primary Industries Minister Jeremy Rockliff acknowledged the pathway between education and agricultural careers could be improved and hoped it would be with the release of Grow, Make, Protect - the agricultural education framework.

“We need to create better pathways and talk up the opportunities,” he said.

Grow, Make, Protect will see schools across the state pilot new agricultural programs at all levels of education.

It is hoped the framework will assist in ensuring agriculture is at the forefront of students’ minds when they are thinking about future career paths.

Mr Rockliff did not commit to saying agriculture had an image problem but acknowledged it was important to try and attract skilled people to the sector.

“Tasmania’s place is in high quality, safe, niche products...we have to understand that agriculture is a high-tech industry, it requires a broad range of skills,” he said.

“It is so important we are leading the world when it comes to technology in agriculture.”

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