by Miriam Mannak

Start with the basics

The agricultural sector is in dire need of skilled workers from grass roots levels to management positions

Skills shortage debates often tend to revolve around sectors like manufacturing, mining and construction. Not many people however realise that South Africa’s agriculture is as equally and badly affected.

Various representative bodies of agricultural sub-sectors have, however, conducted their own research, including the National Emergent Red Meat Producers Organisation (NERPO). According to this not-for-profit meat farmers network, the South African livestock industry is in dire need of thousands of skilled workers.

“We need 2 146 skilled people in livestock farm production as well as animal attendants or farm workers (3 581), machinery operators and drivers (15 000), clerical staff (703), and elementary workers,” said Elizabeth Moller, NERPO’s head of skills development and training earlier this year during the City of Tshwane’s fourth International Trade and Infrastructure Investment conference.

AgriSETA is tasked with the creation of skills development programmes within agriculture and related sectors. These initiatives are funded by skills development levies paid to SARS by South African companies with a payroll exceeding R500 000. Companies with workplace training programmes can claim part of these levies back.

The document for instance shows how agriculture, of all major sectors, has the highest percentage of unskilled workers. Quoting the Department of Trade and Industry (dti) figures, the researchers claim that 94.1% of all people working in primary agriculture are have no practical working skills whatsoever.

While agriculture, particularly primary farming, requires less skilled people than most other sectors, AgriSETA stresses that this does not mean the industry doesn’t need skilled workers at all.

“It needs highly skilled and qualified farm managers and technical staff, as well as large numbers of semi-skilled workers,” the researchers write. ”Many managers of emerging farms are mainly untrained, unskilled, and unqualified.”

AgriSETA, in its 2010 report, adds another reason to the equation why farm workers should be provided with skills.

“South Africa’s enormous pool of unskilled agricultural workers drives wages down and creates opportunities for casualisation and the expansion of labour contract agencies and brokers,” the organisation claims.

“At the lower skilled end of the market tensions are likely to increase, and further protests either in the form of xenophobic outbreaks or actions against farmers may well increase.”

What is the main cause of South Africa’s agricultural skills shortage? According to Vink it is the collapse of the once thriving farm support and education system and the lack of political will to revive it.

“Farmers could once apply for support when setting up a business. We used to have solid agricultural training programmes in the form of colleges, too. That system has been dismantled since the 1980s,” he explains.

“Boskop College in Potchefstroom for instance closed down in 1998. So have others. The entire support structure is gone and the Department of Agriculture is not taking its responsibility to train those working in farming.”

Founded by the South African Agricultural Union, Boskop College trained over 15 000 workers between 1977 – the year of it's inception – and 1989 alone. Apart from its permanent structures, this college had 30 mobile units that visited farms on request.

In Going for Broke: The Fate of Farm Workers in Arid South Africa, which was published in 2007 by the Human Science Research Council, Doreen Atkinson confirms the link between skills shortage and the decline of agricultural colleges.

“Training opportunities have declined drastically during the last 10 years, and training institutions for farm workers are few and far between” she writes.

“Some provinces like the Western Cape do have a better track record. Training centres in this province can accommodate up to 2 500 farm workers every year. However, given that there are about 200 000 farm workers in the Western Cape, this is still inadequate.”

Acknowledging the important role of AgriSETA in skills development strategies in the farming sector, Vink says more is required: “It is a good system and I have a lot of respect for them, but AgriSETA is not set up to cater for primary agriculture. The payroll of most primary farmers is too small. It is there where skills are needed.”

NERPO, Vink and AgriSETA are not alone with their concerns regarding the lack of agricultural skills and the future of farming.

“The number of farmers has dropped from 120 000 in 1994 to 37 000 today, and the average age of a farmer is 62-years-old,” said AgriSA Deputy President Theo de Jager in September during the SA Agricultural Outlook conference, partially blaming the collapse of agricultural colleges.

As Vink, REPRO, AGRISA and AgriSETA pointed out, more skills are needed to keep the South African agricultural sector a thriving pillar of our economy. In 2010, the overall agro-industry, including primary farming as well as up and down stream sectors, accounted for some 12% of the Gross National Product.

That is almost double the contribution of the mining sector in that year - often regarded as the ultimate engine of South Africa’s economy. Employing 650 000 people, or 5% of all jobs available in South Africa; agriculture is an important employer too.

“These are just the jobs in primary agriculture. “On top of that come the jobs in related industries. It is however mainly the primary agriculture that is in need of skills,” Vink concludes.


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