A FORUM will be held in Canberra next month to try and find an answer to the decline in the number of agribusiness graduates in Australia.
Liberal Senator Chris Back is organising the forum and wants to reverse an alarming downward trend in the number of Australian agribusiness professionals graduating from university, to prevent a major skills shortage occurring in the years ahead.
Mr Back said the forum, to be held at Parliament House, will see agribusiness leaders join together to identify current problems and forge a way forward.
Senator Back said agribusiness was Australia's second largest industry and the largest global industry but a dramatic skills shortage loomed locally, unless genuine solutions were found.
He said the situation was "beyond dire" and "chronically bad", with national biosecurity and food security most threatened by the declining labour resources.
"We're not talking about blue collar seasonal labour shortages either, that is only part of the story," he said.
Senator Back said the government and opposition had to accept many decades of failed policies had contributed to the current problem.
Australia Council of Agricultural Deans' secretary Jim Pratley said the industry had in excess of 60,000 available jobs which could not be filled.
But at the moment all Australian universities combined produce only about 800 agribusiness graduates per year with starting salaries of about $65,000.
Senator Back said one of the main catalysts to his forum was to look into the widening gap between the large demand for agribusiness professionals and the shrinking supply of employees, due to fewer graduates.
He said an increasing number of agribusiness leaders were becoming concerned about succession planning and wanted to know where the next generation of leaders were coming from.
In the past 10 years there had been a dramatic decline in the availability of tertiary training courses which combined practical experience with new qualifications.
Dr Back said the reason for this needed to be uncovered.
"In the 1980s, stand alone agricultural institutions like Muresk in WA, were subsumed into large metropolitan campuses," he said.
"Universities around the country started saying they had challenges in their metropolitan campuses so they took cost saving measures.
"In their defence they would say the cost benefit of providing facilities at city based campuses provided access to more students.
"But that's a chicken or the egg scenario and now the evidence speaks for itself.
"You only have to look around Australia; there has been a significant decline of agribusiness courses in rural communities.
"But the agribusinesses leaders will say those students who do the courses in a rural community are much richer for being part of and understanding and communicating with rural communities and the city students don't have that rural comprehension.
"It's exactly the same for the mining courses like those run at the School of Mines in Kalgoorlie.
"The vast majority of students undertaking mining courses are now situated in Perth campuses.
"But just like the agricultural sector, the mining industry is saying the students from the rural areas like Kalgoorlie are more immediately relevant to the industry.
"There's a strong parallel between the two."
Senator Back said the forum, to be held on May 12, would examine the issues and see what can be done to fill the void.
It may mean agriculture gets a complete make-over to make it more attractive and appealing to students but the solution needs to run deeper than a cosmetic fix.
"If you look at the challenges of food security and Australia's capacity as a producer and exporter of food, agriculture is still a very strong component to the economy and perhaps there's been a drop in appreciation of that," he said.
"You hear people say agriculture is not sexy enough.
"Maybe that's what we are not doing. Perhaps we do need to get out there and find out if that's the case, examine it, but also find out why there's such a drop off in the work force.
"Is it because students want to do other things?
"Or is it because we have stopped selling the institution and the concept of agribusiness and putting graduates in front our young kids to help sell the message.
"If that's the perception it's a good starting point.
"I don't want to give people the answers.
"I just want to raise the issue and say there's a high level of concern and ask what we can do about it.
"I'm hopeful we can get some outcomes and having the forum is a strong statement.
"I hope within weeks we'd come back with some strongly worded statements for both sides of parliament to respond to - government and opposition.
"This has not come about from short-term policy and won't be solved by short term fixes."
Agribusiness Alumni president Dr Ian Fairnie said metropolitan universities had failed Australia's agribusiness by moving agribusiness education investment to cheaper alternatives that failed to meet farming and agribusiness needs.
He said they had forsaken the needs of wealth-creating industries in pursuit of short-term gains to attract low cost students.
"Even if universities decided to reverse these decisions tomorrow, there would be long lead times before the number of new graduates could begin to match the numbers retiring," he said.
"A four-fold increase overnight would struggle to fix 20 per cent of the problem.
"There are graduates available now from overseas who could fill many of the vacancies if they could be assured of getting a work visa after suitable training in Australia.
"Even so, Australia would still struggle because the decline in agribusiness is affecting other western countries too, with only 1.5pc of graduate enrolments in US universities being agricultural-related."