THE WA agriculture sector must do more to position itself as a desirable industry to work in if it is to attract students and develop a sustainable workforce.
That was the key message delivered by Education Department principal consultant on agricultural education Alysia Kepert, who was one of the key speakers at the AgConnectWA conference in Fremantle on Friday.
The 2017 nominee for WA’s Rural Woman of the Year award is one of the State’s leading agricultural education advocates and has been working to improve awareness and understanding of the industry to students previously unexposed to it.
To gain a greater understanding of the disconnect between agriculture and high school students, Ms Kepert last year completed a project with support from Manjimup Shire’s Southern Forests SEED program through Royalties for Regions funding.
Ms Kepert said the project’s final report – Developing Student Interest in the Agriculture Sector – was a detailed insight into what “regular students” thought of agriculture.
“The whole point of doing this was to understand the perceptions of agriculture and the source of their perceptions, to understand what drives their career choices and how we need to determine how to position agriculture as a desirable career,” Ms Kepert said.
More than 450 students from year 10 to the first year at university were surveyed throughout the project and asked questions about their understanding of agriculture and the career opportunities it had to offer.
When asked what they knew about careers in agriculture, 33 per cent of respondents answered “nothing at all”, while 49pc knew “a little bit”.
Ms Kepert said the results of the survey indicated a lot of work had to be done to improve agriculture’s image.
She said despite 85pc of jobs within the sector being within the supply chain, survey respondents still thought of farming as the main opportunity available within the industry.
“Every presentation I do to a non-agricultural audience and say ‘what’s the first word in your head when I say agriculture?’ and you can bet your bottom dollar it’s either farmers or tractors,” Ms Kepert said.
“The perception is that it’s dirty, smelly work, it’s hard manual labour, time intensive, far away and remote, unprofitable, weather-dependant and boring.”
She said much of the information students were exposed to surrounding agriculture related to times of hardship that gained news headlines.
“No one wants to work in an industry which the news says you should have pity for and we’ve seen that particularly in the past couple of weeks with the drought,” Ms Kepert said.
“We have these challenges and if that’s the only messages that’s conveyed in the media to young people, why would they want to be involved in that?”
On a more optimistic note, Ms Kepert said the survey found several elements of the sector were largely appealing to survey participants, who were unaware of the more positive aspects of a career in agriculture.
Ms Kepert said once students became aware that the agriculture industry was well paying, had many graduate jobs, a high proportion of city-based roles, a wide variety of employment positions and opportunities for international travel, it became much more attractive.
She said the sector needed to use this information to better appeal to the next generation.
“To be honest the industry needs to start waking up to this and start working with education,” Ms Kepert said.
“Industry must engage with education, you can’t get there to develop a sustainable workforce in education without coming to where the volume is and the volume is in schools.
“We need to expand and get out to every school, we are way behind the Eastern States, they’ve been doing ag education for years.
“We’ve got to lift our game, there is a lot of work to be done because the message is not getting through.”
To improve this, Ms Kepert said the ag industry needed to work collaboratively to ensure consistent messaging.
She said there was not a great enough understanding of agriculture across the State for industry groups to promote themselves separately.
“Instead of working separately when you’re trying to get into that space it actually needs to be a co-ordinated place that it comes from because I can tell you at the school level and at the career adviser level, the people giving advice do not understand agriculture,” Ms Kepert said.
“We need to start getting in there and saying come to the agriculture industry – don’t come to the grains industry, or the meat and livestock industry, or the wool industry – because a mainstream kid in metropolitan high school doesn’t know the difference.
“We have to understand that this level of disconnect in the community about agriculture comes from the fact that we haven’t invested in growing awareness, so it’s everybody’s responsibility.
“We’ve got to address this as a collective.”
Timing was also important, according to Ms Kepert, who said more students needed to be exposed to information about agriculture before the end of high school.
She said many students were finding out about opportunities within the industry after they had already made choices that directed them down another career path.
“Before you used to get your career advice at year 12 – 11 if you were lucky,” Ms Kepert said.
“In secondary school kids are already channelling themselves into pathways so we need to be working way back in the upper primary, early secondary level.”
On top of early engagement with students, Ms Kepert said it was important agriculture boosted its profile with parents, who had a major impact on the career decisions of their students.
“Two influencers are parents and peers and we must talk to them as well as students,” Ms Kepert said.
“We’ve also got to educate the parents by saying where the jobs are going to be, asking them if they want their son or daughter to have an in demand, highly successful career where there’s always work.”