Rural workforce in need of '˜complete skills overhaul'

Scotland's agricultural workforce needs a complete overhaul of its skills if the farming sector is to benefit from the opportunities provided by precision farming technologies, a major conference heard yesterday.

SRUC principal Wayne Powell called for a joined-up approach to skills. Picture: Contributed
SRUC principal Wayne Powell called for a joined-up approach to skills. Picture: Contributed

Professor Wayne Powell, SRUC’s principal and chief executive, told more than 400 delegates at a precision agriculture conference that changes in farming technology offered huge potential to increase productivity in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

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But with rapid technological changes coinciding with an ageing farming workforce, a “complete revitalisation” of the sector’s skills – including a more collaborative approach to training – was vital if that potential was to be achieved.

Speaking at the opening of the European Conference on Precision Agriculture (ECPA) in Edinburgh, Powell said: “We have an exponential development in knowledge and technology, but at the same time we have to apply this technology in new ways.

“It needs new ways of working, new collaborations, changes in behaviour and a real focus on step changes rather than what we have done in the past.”

He believed the answer was in reshaping sector training and development to ensure young people entering the sector had appropriate skills and knowledge – both to make use of the data and information new technologies gathered, and apply them in practical ways.

“One of the biggest impediments of things changing with precision agriculture is the skills base of our workers.

“If we couple that with whatever happens with Brexit, the likelihood is we will have to encourage a higher proportion of our indigenous population to have higher levels of skills. That means we will have to focus on the careers and training opportunities.

“This has to involve a joined-up approach between industry and education providers so that we design a curriculum that isn’t just responding to what’s happening, but is at the forefront of ensuring we have a work-ready population.”

• Farmers, scientists, agronomists and academics from more than 20 countries will attend the four-day ECPA event being held in Edinburgh.

As well as a focus on the role which robotics, sensors, artificial intelligence and other high tech developments can play in arable and grassland livestock systems, delegates will get to see crop trials and field displays later this week during a visit to Scotland’s world-leading research centre, the James Hutton Institute.