Education in the primary industry: crossroads or crosshairs?

At a time when the primary industries are calling out for greater numbers of skilled and qualified individuals to work within them to grow the value of our primary products, the demand by individuals wanting to take up agricultural education and training opportunities is dropping.

Sadly we are witnessing declining student demand for agricultural vocational training for sub-degree courses on a scale we simply have not seen before. Faced with financial troubles, Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre was placed into interim liquidation in December 2018 on the back of deteriorating student demand for its courses and the need to pay back $8.6 million to the Government for courses it failed to deliver. Following Taratahi's liquidation, Telford was offered a one-year lifeline by the Southern Institute of Technology for 2019, but beyond this its future too remains unclear.

In reviewing the Primary ITO's annual reports there were just over 28,000 trainees registered with the organisation in 2017, a 9% drop from 2013. But what is more concerning is that the level of credits achieved by trainees over this period dropped significantly by 30%, which suggests that they are completing courses at a slower rate, or not bothering to complete them at all.

The demand for vocational training programmes within the agricultural industry has declined at a staggering rate over the last five years largely brought about by a strong economy with historically low unemployment, exacerbated by a highly urbanised New Zealand with little direct involvement with the primary industries. Vocational training programmes have an important place in our agricultural sector, as they offer training and upskilling opportunities both on-farm and further up the supply chain, as well as provide education pathways toward higher level undergraduate degrees.

In looking at our universities delivering agricultural-related courses, I have been advised that the number of Lincoln University graduates with agricultural-related degrees (BComAg, BAgSci) has remained reasonably static over the last five years - fortunately at their traditionally high levels. Massey University, by contrast, has produced far fewer agricultural graduates over the same period, which is now well off the relative highs of student enrolments following the high dairy payout in 2010/11. Concurrently, Waikato University has changed the structure of its degree programmes, with agribusiness now becoming a minor within other bachelor degrees.

The upshot is that the overall number of students and trainees being produced by our tertiary education providers is down from where it was five years ago, which casts serious doubt on the strategic targets outlined in the People Powered report launched in April 2014. Funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries and industry, the report undertook an in-depth analysis of the skills and capability required by the nation's primary industries to 2025 based on industry strategies and feedback from industry bodies, government agencies, professional bodies and education training providers. The report estimated that 44% of workers had a formal post-school qualification 2012 and by 2025 this will need to increase to 62% if we are to meet the expectations of industry and government in adding more value to our primary products.

While the demand for highly qualified individuals within the primary industries shows no sign of abating, market signals around the opportunities are simply not reaching secondary student leavers or individuals considering a career change on the scale needed to meet the strategic aspirations and targets identified by sector groups.

NZIPIM's Student Members see the opportunities within the agricultural sector, which was also highlighted in our recent student survey where 63% of respondents did not believe there were barriers to employment in the primary sector. But beyond those intimately familiar with the primary industries, the messaging is not getting out.

What the People Powered report showed, along with innumerable reports from other credible sources, is that there are many career opportunities within our primary industries. Yet we continue to fumble the ball in clearly articulating and motivating others to explore such opportunities, which is needed to drive learner demand and Tertiary Education Commission investment funding for agricultural qualifications and further training.

As it stands, the number of suitably qualified workers and professionals required to the year 2025 by our primary industries is woefully short of where we need to be. There is an imperative to respond to the primary sector's strategy for higher level qualifications and training opportunities in what is New Zealand's largest industry, and largest contributor to export income. The challenge offered by NZIPIM to the sector, the institutions and Government is to show collective leadership and commitment to providing enhanced education and training opportunities for motivated individuals within the primary industries, rather than sitting back waiting for the next bad headline of another closure or collapse among our tertiary education providers.