THE chronic shortage of skilled labour is the biggest problem now facing agriculture, the ANZ Bank’s head of economics Tony Pearson said at the Western Australian No-Tillage Farmers Association (WANTFA) annual conference last week.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures released last week showed the national unemployment rate dropped from 4.1pc in January to 4pc in February, its lowest level since 1974 when it was 2.7pc.
Normally such a low figure would bring good news to the economy but this time it signalled there was an even bigger shortage of labour, Mr Pearson said.
There are not enough workers, skilled or not, to fill the large number of vacancies.
This is crucial in agriculture where many seasonal workers have been forced to take up jobs in mining because of recent drought.
February’s unemployment rate raised fears among employers of a blowout in average pay packets, which are already moving up sharply at an annual rate of about 5pc.
The jobless rate’s decline came as another 36,700 jobs were created last month, taking the number of Australians in employment to 10.7 million.
Full-time employment increased by 47,700 to 7.6m and part-time jobs fell by 11,000 to 3m.
Mr Pearson said the labour market also had the Reserve Bank of Australia “spooked” and it was a measure of the economy exasperated by wages being at their highest level in ten years.
He said labour in the agricultural sector was in “dangerously” short supply and had failed to recover from the 2002-03 drought.
“Agricultural employment dropped like a rock during the 2002-03 drought and has not recovered since,” Mr Pearson said.
“It is a massive challenge to find workers for agriculture.
“Most of the labour force has been lost to the mining industry.
“With rain and commodity prices picking up this year, agricultural labour will be desperately needed.
“But the big challenge will be where to find it and how to attract and bring in new employees into the industry.”