Educating teachers, career advisers and students on the range of career opportunities in the Australian grains industry is the key aim of a suite of new and continuing investments from the GRDC to boost the number of new people entering the sector.
The investment has been driven by the acute skills shortage and potential succession planning issues facing the grains industry.
GRDC capacity building program manager Kathleen Allan says Australian Farm Institute data shows there are about 600 agricultural graduates per year for 2500 to 3000 vacant jobs, so filling the gap requires urgent attention.
“The GRDC has long recognised the need to encourage students into agriculture but in the past 12 months we have taken an even more proactive role in developing a grains industry education strategy with a suite of related education resources for use at schools and community events,” she says.
The GRDC capacity building team has been working on programs to:
- educate teachers and career advisers about opportunities in the grain industry, given their role as key influencers over student career decision-making;
- target tertiary students who are already likely to study science as a career and outline to them the opportunities in agricultural and plant science as a specialty field; and
- promote the science behind grain production to secondary-school students to showcase the broad range of careers and opportunities available.
Teachers, career advisers
In March, the GRDC partnered with the South Australian Grains Industry Trust and AgCommunicators consultancy to deliver a pilot professional development event designed to inform SA teachers and career advisers about opportunities in the SA grains industry.
The professional development day involved taking 23 careers advisers from regional and metropolitan SA on tours through the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility, the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, the wheat quality laboratory at Australian Grain Technologies and Joe White Malting (Cargill Australia).
There was an interactive session on career pathways, training and further education opportunities available through the University of Adelaide, the University of South Australia, Regional Skills Training and Rural Skills Australia, and a gala ‘educational eating’ dinner with a menu showcasing grains.
“The workforce of tomorrow starts with today’s secondary-school students, so it is important that those who help advise and steer students’ careers are equipped with the right information,” Ms Allan says.
To prepare for the project, a poll was taken of teachers’ and career advisers’ perceptions of the SA grains industry. The poll found that 25 per cent had little knowledge of career pathways into agriculture and 32 per cent had only a fair knowledge.
“This indicates there is work to be done in educating career advisers of the actual careers available – we are working to promote the broad range of careers from research to agronomy, agribusiness to food science, grain marketing to logistics and even communication and education,” Ms Allan says.
In January, the GRDC presented a new suite of science-based activities as part of the 2015 National Youth Science Forum (NYSF) in Canberra. Ms Allan says the NYSF is unique in Australia. This year, two forums ran for 12 days each and attracted about 400 students.
Students tried grain experiments that investigated soil health and nematodes, wheat breeding, dough quality, chemistry of weather-damaged grains and stomata of drought-tolerant and susceptible crop varieties.
“Students reported back that the GRDC’s session was exciting, engaging and eye-opening. Essentially, careers in agricultural science are now on their radar,” Ms Allan says.
A suite of education resources will be available through the GRDC ‘Seed to Store’ initiative to help schools and communities to engage with the science of food production and the grains industry in particular.
Ms Allan says one of the opportunities to attract skilled labour into the industry is through students who are already studying science at university. This is the reason that the GRDC has been a long-time supporter of CSIRO’s Undergraduate Vacation Scholarships program.
These are competitive scholarships through which the brightest undergraduate science and engineering students are selected and teamed with researchers from around Australia for a 10-week placement that provides industry research experience.
The GRDC’s support enables specific grains-industry placements to be offered. This year, out of the 100 placements offered, 23 were agricultural and eight were grains-specific.
CSIRO Vacation Scholarship coordinator Dr Andrew Moore says the scheme has helped students direct their careers in grains industry research and provided opportunities, with many making scientific advancements that are being published in research journals.
The career adviser
Jackie Fairlie is an apprenticeship broker with the South Australian Department of Education and Child Development, and attended the GRDC-supported career advisers professional development day in Adelaide in March.
South Australian apprenticeship brokers Kerry Woolston (left), from Glossop, and Jackie Fairlie, from Kadina, experimenting with dough quality at Australian Grain Technologies’ Waite Campus laboratory.
PHOTO: Alistair Lawson
Ms Fairlie says there are many students doing school-based apprenticeships on SA’s Yorke Peninsula and she plays a role in helping them navigate their career paths.
“I attended the ‘More than Gumboots and Tractors’ careers event to upskill and discover what else there was to the grains industry besides farming,” she says.
“I learned so much. I think it would be great to have young teachers come along to one of these events to have a look at what’s out there. The University of Adelaide Waite Campus is such a great place filled with amazing career and research opportunities.
“I’m 60 years old and coming to the end of my career, and this event showcased careers and research that I had never heard of before. I really wish I learned this earlier so I could advise students of these opportunities.”
The secondary-school student
PHOTO: Belinda Cay
Year 12 student Jana Dixon, from Clare in South Australia, attended the 2015 National Youth Science Forum in Canberra to learn more about careers in science.
She participated in the GRDC’s Seed to Store science session and rated it a “five out of five”.
“The Seed to Store activity was relevant to the field I want to work in, and it was fun, we had a great time doing the experiments and learning about the careers on offer. It’s a career I’d be interested in for sure,” she says.
The undergraduate student
Through the CSIRO Vacation Scholarship, Australian National University undergraduate student Josephine Ginty has changed her opinion about plant science and the grains industry.
Ms Ginty worked on a placement studying the vernalisation sensitivity of winter wheat
varieties with CSIRO’s Dr James Hunt. She says the experience provided her with an insight into ‘real-world’ research.
“The opportunity was amazing – it gave me the opportunity to put my theoretical understanding of plant science into practice,” she says. “I honestly didn’t realise that this type of research was going on until, all of a sudden, I am helping to develop a solution to a problem I didn’t know existed – it was really exciting.”
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