Riding the next wave of automation in rural Australia
A new Regional Australia Institute (RAI) discussion paper reveals the automation risks rural areas are facing and outlines how simultaneously increasing migration and lifting local skills development can prepare rural labour markets to do well in an era of changing workforce demand.
The increasing automation of occupational tasks across the economy means the nature of work today is very different to what it was a century ago. Managing these technological and labour force changes remains a challenge for workers and policymakers alike.
Recommendations for how rural communities can meet current and future workforce challenges have been put forward in a new discussion paper, Riding the next wave of automation in rural Australia: Safeguarding agriculture and rural labour markets through migration and skills development.
In making these recommendations, outlined below, the discussion paper introduces some of the key issues under examination in the RAI’s 2018 Shared Inquiry Program in relation to the future of regional jobs: 1) the impacts of automated technologies on different occupation types; 2) the role of migrant workers for filling labour shortages; and 3) the need for ongoing workforce development.
The job mix in rural areas is changing rapidly, from a predominance of low skill agricultural work to a mix of low and high skilled agriculture and service sector jobs.
To help cultivate a workforce for the next generation, an increase in migrant labour and skills development/acknowledgement is required. Pursuing these two solutions in tandem will enable rural communities to address current labour challenges and be adaptable to future change.
The skills mix offered by migrant workers across the occupation spectrum is one particular area in need of renewed focus. Permanent migration is important, as well as temporary, to ensure the mix of entry level positions that need filling but also ongoing, senior positions can be catered for.
Rural areas likewise need new skills development at the local level. Researchers at the National Centre for Vocational Education and Research estimate there will be a rise in the number of job vacancies for farmer and farm manager positions over the next few years (up to 123,000 openings between 2016 and 2024), both due to expansion and the replacement of retired older workers.[i] To help fill these vacancies, younger people need to be encouraged to aspire to senior farming roles, and the increasing level of professionalism that such roles are assuming.
Ongoing investment in human capital through skills development right across rural communities will be crucial. This may be through formal or informal learning done ‘on the job’, at home, or in a dedicated educational setting. This will challenge the current education system to adapt to change.
Keeping up to date with the latest work processes and technologies will also help support rural enterprises to tap into new national and international markets and move into niche areas of business. This, in turn, can foster new employment opportunities locally.
Recommendations to safeguard agriculture and rural labour markets include:
- Monitor the impact of automation in rural areas to identify how different employment and occupation prospects depend on the prevalence of different sub-industries. For example, within agriculture, fisheries and forestry (AFF), employment in fruit and tree nut growing is expected increase by 2022, whereas employment in sheep and beef cattle farming is expected to decline (because of enhanced production efficiency). Responses to these specific prospects and challenges need to be place-based and not based simply on sector-wide policies.
- Embrace the critical role of migrant workers in addressing rural labour shortages, especially in horticulture-reliant Heartland regions, and increase temporary and permanent migration using locally-led strategies.
- Ensure that Australia’s visa system reflects the presence and need for high and low-skilled workers and local labour shortages.
- Provide greater recognition of AFF-related skills and qualifications to: (a) encourage and facilitate more international migrants to pursue AFF careers in rural Australia; and (b) enhance the perceived value and professionalism of AFF careers for Australia’s rural youth.
- Address current and future labour challenges through international migration and ongoing endogenous skills development via clearly-defined training pathways (whether through on-the-job ‘badge’ style skills recognition, free online courseware, or a more traditional TAFE-university context) to: (a) ensure local adaptability for future employment across all industries; and (b) encourage rural businesses to tap into niche markets, locally and internationally.
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[i] Shah, C. and Dixon, J. (2018). Future job openings by new entrants by industry and occupation, National Centre for Vocational Education Research, available at www.ncver.edu.au.