Building a sustainable workforce is an ongoing, complex and challenging issue for Queensland’s agriculture sector. To realise the workforce it needs for the future, the sector must attract and set up potential employees for success in their chosen field. The Queensland Government’s decision to close the Queensland Agricultural Training Colleges (QATC) in Emerald and Longreach and cease all operations by the end of 2019 challenges this aim and is disappointing for the sector and the regional communities the colleges support.
The closure of the campuses however, should not be too surprising. The traditional agricultural college training model has served the community and industry well for nearly half a century, many of its graduates providing some of the best examples of those currently in leadership roles across our sector. However, it is clear after the work of the most recent independent review by Professor Peter Coaldrake that QATC’s position had weakened with the colleges operating at a deficit of $5 million in the financial year to March 2018 and minimal enrolments meaning that the student to staff ratio is almost one to one.
Following this decision, government must listen to industry and regional communities to better build investment in modern training methods to service the future needs of a growing agribusiness sector. Government must be accountable for future spending commitments and plans for staff. Any funding saved by the closure of the colleges must be invested in such a way that it helps the sector better meet its workforce needs. Constructive repurposing of the facilities to ensure they continue to benefit agriculture and the local communities is also critical.
Ultimately, we need to more effectively address the ongoing issue of ensuring a skilled and adaptable workforce to meet the sector’s future needs. A workforce that is well resourced, fit for purpose and responsive to the ever-changing technological advances and potential disruption ahead. We must therefore focus on producing smarter outcomes, both in terms of the models we apply to deliver the necessary training and their financial viability.
In the wake of this decision, and that to cut funding for the successful School to Industry Partnership Program, the government must review its approach to supporting agriculture’s future workforce in transitioning from school to tertiary education and work – accountability for which is currently spread across the multiple portfolios of Education; Agricultural Industry Development & Fisheries; and Employment, Small Business & Training.
The smart game is ensuring that throughout schooling our students have access to opportunities that make them aware of the significance of food, fibre, foliage and renewable fuel production and the many diverse career pathways available in agriculture should they so choose. An overdue initial action would be for Queensland to include mandatory agriculture and related technology studies within the school curriculum, as have other states – most notably NSW, which is rolling out measures from next year that will see primary and secondary students introduced to new courses.
The Rural Jobs & Skills Alliance, facilitated by QFF, has been tasked by Minister Mark Furner to develop a proposal that would incorporate a range of initiatives to improve the understanding of students, educators and career advisers about the career opportunities offered by agriculture and the future skills required. To be successful, industry sectors must be able to attract and retain a sustainable, fit for purpose workforce – ours is no exception and must not be overlooked.