Farming must win “hearts and minds” of youngsters to fill skills void

Edge Spring Conference 2015 - (from left), Clarke Willis, Dr David Llewellyn, Dan Corlett, Alastair

Edge Spring Conference 2015 - (from left), Clarke Willis, Dr David Llewellyn, Dan Corlett, Alastair Taylor, Richard Hirst, Will Hinton and Martin Collison. Photo by Keiron Tovell - Credit: Keiron Tovell Photography

A serious skills crisis is looming for the food and farming industry unless it can reinvent itself to win the 'hearts and minds' of youngsters at all tiers of education.

That was the key message from the Edge Apprenticeships spring conference, which brought about 70 people to Lynford Hall Hotel at Mundford, near Thetford.

They heard that more than 595,000 new recruits will be needed to join the industry over the next 10 years, according to research by Lantra, the UK's skills council for the land-based sector.

And senior education figures said that would mean competing for the most skilled students, re-branding to puncture dated stereotypes and promote technical, challenging and diverse careers – and communicating the message in a unified voice to children, teachers and parents.

Dr David Llewellyn is vice chancellor of Harper Adams University in Shropshire, the UK's leading specialist provider of higher education for the agri-food chain.

He said: 'Somewhere along the line we need think about the messages we are using to encourage young people into our industry. The world is getting more complex, and economic complexity can be a real driver of growth. If we choose the areas that we want to specialise in, and we back those areas with government support, we can really make a difference. Innovation needs to be driven. It does not just happen.

'We need software and systems engineers, robotics engineers, drone pilots... and we need the people who are skilled enough to use those in agricultural applications.

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'There is everything to play for in the use of new technology and it will demand a different set of skills, and perhaps a higher one than we have been used to. We also have to consider that we are working in a competitive market for young people.

'We have a skills shortage coming up and it is affecting both graduates and those in trades and other areas of professional work. As that crisis starts to hit we will need to think about we compete with other sectors. We will need to work really hard to win the hearts and minds of young people, and we might have to look in different places to find them.'

Dr Llewellyn said there was a particular need for more post-graduate students in scientific careers which are at the root of agricultural research and innovation.

He also called for a concerted effort to highlight agri-food careers options at all educational levels, in a way which can enthuse a mass audience. He showed a video of a TV advert which the university had made and said: 'We need to get that message across during the Jeremy Kyle Show and Coronation Street, and not around Countryfile'.

Dan Corlett, chief executive of Farming And Countryside Education (FACE), talked about the Brightcrop scheme, which aims to inspires young talent to think about jobs in food and farming, but whose research had found 96pc of young people would not consider a career in agriculture.

'They have no perception of anything going on in our industry, and that is why they were not interested,' he said. 'That's great – we are starting with a blank canvas and we have a fantastic story to tell them.'

Martin Collison, of Collison Associates, highlighted the raft of challenges facing the next generation of farmers, including increased world food demand, climate change, commodity markets at the mercy of political instability, the application of automation technology and the need to adapt to diet trends. 'It is a complex world and we need the skills to respond to that,' he said.

Alastair Taylor, chief executive of the Institution of Agricultural Engineers (IAgrE), said businesses also had a responsibility to train their staff and customers about new technologies. 'Don't just leave it to the colleges – the government will expect businesses to play their part, so we need to get behind them,' he said.

Edge chairman Richard Hirst summarised the meeting by saying: 'We need to hit every target to make sure the food and farming industry is talking with one voice. If we lose the opportunity now, we will face a really serious crisis in 10-15 years time.

'Rebranding is so important. Some people come to my farm and ask me about tractor drivers because their child is not doing so well at school and they think that might be something they can do. But we need to raise the bar and appeal to the real high-fliers. And the disinformation about what our industry pays needs to be changed.'

Figures released by Defra yesterday during National Apprenticeship Week show a record number of young people are seeking careers in food and farming, with more than 36,000 applications for agriculture-related apprenticeships in 2013-14 – a nine-fold increase since 2010.

What next for apprenticeships project?

The conference was held to celebrate the second anniversary of Edge Apprenticeships in Food and Farming, which has now placed 448 apprentices with 351 employers, and estimates it has exposed 53,677 people to agri-food careers at events and shows.

In the next two years of the four-year project, delegates were told the aims are to roll out the project nationally, and to increase the numbers of apprentices recruited to 520.

The scheme has secured £327,288 from the industry to support apprenticeships, and recorded £235,920 of in-kind matched funding.

Clarke Willis, chief executive of Anglia Farmers, said: 'We must not forget that this is about shaping people's lives for their future careers, and for the future of the planet. It is not about statistics – behind those statistics are people with real jobs and real challenges.'

Edge Apprenticeships is a collaborative venture between agricultural purchasing groups Anglia Farmers and Fram Farmers Group, in conjunction with Easton and Otley College, New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), and Norfolk and Suffolk County Councils.

Ongoing work includes a series of school roadshows to introduce students to farm technology and animals, and a legacy project to create a permanent classroom at Jimmy's Farm in Ipswich.

Edge Apprentices and young farmers were asked to take smartphone video 'selfies' to explain what they love about their jobs – see the video link above to hear what they said.