Opinion

Governments must address workforce availability issues

By Allan Dingle, Queensland Farmers' Federation President
May 7 2022 - 9:00pm
Workforce strategy needed

It was Einstein who famously said that "insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result". And this week as we move into another week of electioneering, I found myself drawing some parallels to Einstein's thinking.

Over the course of the week, the complexities of the many workforce issues impacting our agriculture sector unfolded and intersected in a perfect storm that, for those of us who have been vocal about them for a long time, came as no surprise.

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Yet surprised, it seems, everyone was.

Inflation, wages and workforce availability issues for agriculture all hit the headlines this week and the tale of doom and gloom was being told and retold, as the ramifications of a sharply rising inflation rate start to hit home. The discussion of the retail cost of a head of lettuce and a steak featured in the commentary, flagging the need for a greater understanding of the real costs of food production and our collective will as a nation to ensure our future farming sector is sustainable.

On the land and in our regions, we have seen the clouds of this forming for a long time. The rising cost of production inputs - fuel, fertiliser, compliance and wages - has started to finally well and truly filter through the supply chain.

Yet the response from governments has been the same policy positions and mantras, a good dose of finger pointing and a promise of a policy reversal on the Ag Visa (a policy that has been industry driven) thrown in for good measure.

At a time when we need to look to the future and strategically set the sector up for growth, we are still focusing on Band-Aid solutions and not addressing the underlying issues that will have the greatest impact on stabilising the costs of putting food on the tables across our nation.

The agriculture workforce requires structural reform, a long-term strategy and collaboration between all levels of government and industry.

Any wage increases or Ag Visa proposals being tossed around, without addressing the lack of housing availability for workers in our regions, is empty policy. It is very difficult to attract workers when they have nowhere to live. Without adequate childcare or services to support a workforce how do we attract and retain a committed, well-trained and reliable workforce that underpins stability and growth for our sector and the communities we operate in?

What we need is a Regional Roadmap that is holistic, cohesive and encompasses all levels of government working side by side with industry so that together we can work to build the local capacity of our workforce.

We must include a new approach across the VET and tertiary sector so that we are better equipped to ensure we are training students with the skills that are required in today and tomorrow's agricultural sector. R&D along with the development of artificial intelligence solutions must also be part of the solution. Farming is a rewarding career that provides many opportunities and we need an education sector that supports a pathway and provides appropriate and industry relevant skills to enable people to pursue these opportunities.

A successful workforce strategy will address one of the key inputs to help underpin the future sustainability of the sector, secure our food production regions and ultimately contribute to stabilising the real cost of food production in Australia.

Do we as Australians value our ability as a nation to produce the world's finest foods and as consumers to have access to the freshest food products every week? I know that I do, and I encourage us all to change the narrative and stop doing what we have always done while expecting a different result.

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