Ag Industry, Farming, Opinion, Training

Opinion: increase training opportunities to reduce shortages

Agriculture needs to out-compete the city for training opportunities if it wants to increase the number of mechanics and technicians working in the country, WAFarmers CEO Trevor Whittington writes

All farmers know the tractor works perfectly when it is sitting in the shed, but pull it out to use it and things start going wrong.

On post-2000 tractors from the electronic age, there are vast amounts of things that can go wrong.

This raises a question – where are all the ag mechanics, or ag technicians as they call them, when they are needed?

Sure, at $200 an hour and with a prior booking you can slot in your machine at the local dealer, but you will quite rightly be in line behind all those farmers who have bought new or near-new machinery and have a warranty.

The lack of skilled people who can diagnose and fix mechanical and electrical problems in complex farm machinery is an ongoing weakness in our farming systems and it is time rural communities stepped into the debate and looked for alternative ways to match supply with demand.

This push to have every second high school student go to university means we are losing the smart, hands-on kids who would have done a trade and made a brilliant electrical technician building things.

I have written before of the need for a crash course to fast track the young and not-so-young who have an interest in agricultural machinery through an intensive, one-year, hands-on training course.

Four-year apprenticeships are all well and good, but they were designed by the guilds of old to manage the supply of labour in the old master and servant days.

Spending the first year of an apprenticeship attending mindless safety training sessions at TAFE along with changing oil, sweeping the workshop floor and bolting together seeding bars is not going to appeal to a 25-year-old who has been working on farms and building speedway cars and wants to skill up.

During the Second World War, the Australian government threw the apprenticeship system out the window and got aircraft mechanics through the full four years of the trade in 104 days, even if this meant going six days a week in the classroom or 10 hours a day on the tools.

In the end they could diagnose, strip and rebuild every part of the different aircraft that were made in Australia.

These aircraft might not have the complex electronics that modern Australian tractors and harvesters have on them today, but 104 days puts to shame the 1,470 we are spending training up our current crop of mechanics.

There is a shortage of skilled machinery mechanics in rural Australia. Image: Bulent /

If we are going to attract smart, hands-on kids to consider life in the bush, then we need to out compete the city for training opportunities.

Find an alternative to the slow coach ticket into the industry via a high-speed train, and we can attract a new cohort of people into the service industry.

One way to do that would be to reboot one of the old agricultural colleges that once dotted the landscape across rural Australia.

These have since closed as the long march of the universities has hoovered up more and more of our kids away from hands-on technical training.

Any of these places would make perfect live-in colleges to undertake 12 months of intensive training.

Muresk in Western Australia is the standout logical place to start, as it has 160-room residential facility which is still operational along with a new $9m workshop currently used by the dealers for short-term training.

The industry needs to be proactive and call on state governments to reboot these institutions and have at least one in each state that can offer intensive ag technical training.

Get it right and these will be highly sought-after places and the graduates will be highly employable.

Sure, they won’t have the experience of a four-year apprenticeship but with the right training, some will be highly proficient at ag tech computer diagnostics.

These diagnostics is a skill moving so fast that it alone would justify establishing a full-time training academy.

Trevor Whittington is CEO of WAFarmers.

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