A perfect combination of a cohort of young people embarking on the next step of their career ladder, and pressing, urgent needs facing the agri-food industry means there is a unique opportunity to more creatively match supply of talent with industry needs.
September marks the time for the education sector to welcome the latest generation of students into the myriad of courses and training opportunities on offer across further and higher education. With a record number of vacancies, and the UK agri-food sector making national headlines with its labour shortages, the time is right for the industry to be embedded in courses across all sectors, and harness the multi-disciplinary potential needed to drive the sector forward.
You don’t have to study agri-food to make a difference!
From computing to telecoms, and physics to engineering, the importance of using case studies, worked examples and projects based around the potential for agri-food can’t be under-estimated as a way to bring fresh new talent into the industry.
The traditional educational routes into agriculture will still remain and the HE and FE sector is working hard to keep the offering current and fresh for employers. However the pandemic and Brexit – plus the fast-pace of technology innovation – are coming together to create a new and exciting set of opportunities that are relevant beyond the traditional courses.
Potential to make a difference
The agri-food industry is facing a major workforce challenge as the skills and knowledge that are needed are either in short supply or are being snapped up by other sectors.
There are pinch-points all along the supply chain, from R&D and agricultural production, to food processing and logistics. These are posing a serious threat to the resilience of the UK food system as well as cost and even potentially availability of product on supermarket shelves.
So, how can we better align those emerging from all stages of education with the changing demands – and increasing opportunities – of the sector?
Patchy Provision In Education
A recent paper by Sims et al. (2021) has highlighted that agri-food remains seriously under-represented in education and training, from school through to higher education.
- Primary schools – There are a number of great initiatives that are helping to embed knowledge and excitement around agriculture and food production into the general curriculum.
- Exposure at secondary level is patchy, regionalised and often depending on energetic local volunteers and /or funding.
- in Further and Higher Education land-based training and skills development is under even more pressure – as colleges and universities grapple with years of under-investment, a challenging business model for their funding, and the need to present exciting courses and career opportunities to students.
Sims and colleagues note that increasing diversity, promoting agri-food placements and industry exposure, more industry-led recruitment, and, crucially, more funding for agri-food research is needed.
The 2019/20 academic year saw 16,725 students studying ‘Agriculture, food and related studies’ according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. An analysis of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) degree courses offered in agri-food related disciplines revealed 274 courses in this field.
Many universities have separate departments for agri-food related disciplines such as Agriculture and Food Nutrition, but only two UK universities have separate Plant Science departments. Beyond specialist degree disciplines, such as Agricultural Sciences and Nutrition, agri-food related topics appear infrequently in degree courses.
This needs to change in order to make agri-food more ubiquitous across all disciplines.
Making agriculture high-tech career option
Agriculture is not all about the actual growing of plants, or husbandry of livestock – it is also now a high-tech business.
The quality of the jobs, and the need for people to fill them, are increasing and while the opportunities become ever more exciting, the people to fill them are in short supply or, more tellingly, are drawn to other sectors.
A great example of this is robotics, which remains high on the agri-education agenda – thanks in part to the University of Lincoln’s recent Doctoral Training Partnership and the research and teaching underway at Harper Adams University. These are notable leaders in the UK, showing the role industry needs to play in attracting the engineering and automation talent and providing opportunities for them to develop in the sector.
We need to be MUCH better at embedding an awareness of agri-food across non-traditional sectors, including throughout education.
Making agri-food attractive
A more creative and holistic approach to education and career planning is going to be vital. Agri-food provides relevant and purposeful context for multiple subjects across the curriculum, with the STEM subjects being the most obvious and is surely the way forward to enable the next generation to be exposed to as many possible career choices as possible throughout the education journey.
In biology, “form follows function” – and the same is true in education. The needs of the industry must inform funding, which must in turn drive more appealing, diverse and exciting curriculum development.
As a sector, our shared objective should be to help ensure a concern about the environment translates into individuals moving into related courses as they move towards being part of the workforce.
We have literally no time to lose.