Do we need a replacement policy for farm staff?

Education is an integral part of pig production and vital to keep pace with technical advances and the constant demand for greater efficiency. However, formal training opportunities in pig husbandry have dwindled during the past two decades. Jane Jordan asks where the sector’s new blood will come from

Recruitment continues to be a significant problem for the pig industry. Those who are already working in the sector are keen to progress, but attracting new entrants is very difficult. With high unemployment in many rural areas and school leavers desperate for jobs, why is the pig industry struggling to find personnel?

Image is perhaps the biggest factor here as few people realise that modern pig production is a rather high-tech, food production business offering a decent wage and career progression. Farm assurance standards, welfare codes and a need for high-health status and greater efficiency means production systems must be well managed – and what’s good for pigs is also good for people.
The vice principal at East Anglia’s Easton and Otley College, Clive Bounds, believes the academic focus of the current education system is partly to blame.

“The agricultural industry has changed significantly with enormous rationalisation, but farm businesses still need staff and there’s a strong demand for students,” he explains. “But young people are not forthcoming, and that’s probably because of the way UK education is structured.”

With the primary focus for education centred on league tables and GCSE qualifications, the provision for vocational certificates – where 14-16-years-olds would spend one day a week at a college, pursuing practically based training and workplace experience – have been significantly capped. Fewer youngsters are now exposed to the land-based industries because there’s limited funding available for day-release courses. As a consequence, there are fewer students and entrants moving into agriculture/horticulture and most are unaware of the career prospects available in areas such as pig production.

“We have a significant disconnect between the academic learning and vocational education and we do need to bridge that gap,” Clive adds. “It’s not that students don’t like farming, it’s that they don’t really know much about it or the employment opportunities it offers.”

There’s also a considerable misconception about primary food production, where society as a whole doesn’t seem to value the commitment and expertise required to get food from farm to plate. Most people don’t see the countryside as a manufacturing industry or as a place to work, and there’s a lot of negativity associated with farming.

The terminology used in the industry also needs updating. Livestock technician is more applicable to a stockman’s role these days than pigman. IT and computer skills are very much part of the job, alongside stock skills and a key understanding of health and welfare. But a job like this also requires practical aptitude and empathy with animals, skills that aren’t easy to demonstrate in the classroom or via examinations.

According to Clive, many of the youngsters at Easton and Otley find formal, classroom-based education difficult, whereas the more practical route enables them to learn effectively. Again, it’s about making the connection between, say, the numeracy/literacy requirements of an academic education and how that can be integrated alongside vocational roles.

“For example, if you weigh pigs to select for market, you must collect and process data, then analyse it and work out what these figures are telling you,” he says. “It’s numeracy and literacy working in practice and many youngsters can grasp these fundamentals far easier from a practical perspective than they can through classroom tuition.

“And while they’re here achieving this, they’re also learning about land-based industries and the career opportunities they can offer.”

As an industry, the pig sector must address these issues. Clive says other vocational sectors, such as construction and the engineering industry, probably experience the same recruitment problems. He believes reconnecting young folk with practical education options, rather than focusing purely on academic routes, could provide some solutions.

The farming sector needs young entrants that are employable and skills such as reliability, good communication and commitment are vitally important. More specific, job-related skills can be learned once they’re in work and vocational training supports this premise.

The pig sector needs to be brave and seek out potential recruits from places where agriculture may not be on the radar. With the school leaving age now set at 18 years of age, there could be a multitude of youngsters looking at vocational qualifications that provide clear prospects of progressive employment and a decent wage.

The pig industry ticks many of these boxes; it now needs to sell itself to a younger generation where farming is not necessarily in the blood.

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