WAFarmers welcomes the growing interest by the state government in attracting students to work in the primary industry sector via their recently launched Project Primed. The project aims to raise the profile of careers in fisheries, forestry and agriculture, because for too long students have seen these sectors through the prism of men working outdoors offering nothing but low pay and hard work. Our industry has failed to build a picture of a modern workplace with exciting highly technical positions that offer men and women interesting careers supporting the scientific, mechanical, marketing and management sides of primary industry.
The Minister for Regional Development, Agriculture and Fisheries Alannah McTiernan, has worked out that we have an image problem and it’s time to talk up who we are and what we do. What she is doing is starting the journey to reposition primary industries as a preferred career choice for school students, as for too long the sector has been its own worst enemy, slow to encourage women to join its ranks and slow to recognise that we offer interesting career paths. Not to mention a far better lifestyle than what’s on offer in Western Australia’s other big primary industry, the mining sector.
WAFarmers supports the project but would have liked to see it as a partnership with an existing national project called PrimeZone which was originally set up by the Federal Department of Agriculture and the National Farmers Federation a decade ago to do much the same thing. Today they have a solid national footprint in schools across Australia developing curriculum material that pushes kids towards supporting and understanding agriculture, food and fiber. Too often we seek to recreate the wheel when another state or the federal government has already had a crack at the problem.
Ultimately the state government’s challenge is to not just raise the profile of primary industry as a career choice but also address the negatives that are associated with working in our industry. A frank discussion about how to encourage more regional businesses to take on apprentices and what’s needed to stop the education brain drain of skilled staff from the regions to Perth in search of better schooling opportunities for their high school aged kids is critical. It is well known that the students that are most likely to pursue a career in agriculture and accept the challenges of living in the bush are those born, bred and complete their schooling in the bush.
The previous government had half a crack at addressing the problem investing billions of dollars of Royalties for Regions funds into rebuilding regional towns which was important in making these communities competitive with a growing and glamorous Perth but failed to stop the brain drain. The challenge now is for this government to work out what it plans to do to not just convince today’s kids that there is an exciting future in agriculture but that living in the bush will not see them miss out on government services and opportunities for their own children.
One thing we know is that agriculture does not lack applicants for job positions in Perth; accountants, agronomists, traders and technicians will always happily accept a position in an office or workplace in the big smoke and once they buy a house near the beach they are no hurry to move to the bush. What we lack are people who want to live near the lake in Lake Grace and the rock at Bruce Rock. These are hard complex challenges’ that require 100 times more thinking and dollars that putting up $1m a year for five years to encourage kids to look at careers in agriculture.
We know that Western Australia has on offer great technical training and university courses that specialise in agriculture and fisheries which are popular and lead to solid job offers for graduates, but not surprisingly many of these positions will be based in a regional town. Unfortunately once a graduate comes out of three, four or five years of training having lived under the bright city lights, then few roads are attractive enough to lead them back to the bush.
One way of tackling the problem is to address the quality of schooling and technical training. What we need is to target the super towns and ungrade the school buildings and residential hostels so they are as good as the best on offer at the private schools in Perth. Then run a trial to subsidise the boarding facilities, pay the best teachers and trainers a premium to go regional and double the subsidy for regional businesses to employ many more apprentices. The government needs to think out of the box and use the power of the state if it is serious about growing careers in agriculture. Keeping bush kids in the bush is our best chance of building a sustainable regional skilled workforce.
The other challenge is for the government to recognise that it is part of the problem. When the bush is competing with thousands of well-paid public service jobs on offer in the departments of education, regional development, agriculture and fisheries all of which are based in or near the CBD, then odds on, parents will steer their kids towards the money, power, prestige and security on offer with well paid government jobs in the city. Maybe we need to look hard at what we are paying our public servants in the city vs those that take regional jobs. Also is it too much to ask for DPIRD to decentralise its non-core positions like its back office administration to Bunbury to at least signal that its supports regional development. there just happens to be a nice block ready to build opposite the Dolphin Discovery Centre that was set aside for the the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions head office which was cancelled by this government.
Maybe also its time for the government focus on real regional development and look at specific programs that will help retain and attract skilled people. If this government can find $4 billion for a signature metro project called metro-net then what’s their signature regional rebuilding project? If the Ministers for Education and Regional Development came out with a five year plan to super charge our regional super towns with $100m a year to lift their education and training facilities to rival the new Bob Hawke High School in Subiaco then that would be a real signal that the bush is back in business as a place to live and work. In the mean time we commend the government for seeking to raise the profile of our industry.