Grass has never been greener for career in the countryside

There is on-going demand for newly qualified people in Scotland's land-based sector. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
There is on-going demand for newly qualified people in Scotland's land-based sector. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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New opportunities require the right skills, writes David James

The record-breaking crowds attending the recent Royal Highland Show in their thousands will each have their own impressions of what rural Scotland is all about. Some will have liked livestock, some favoured food and others gone for gigantic machines. It is a fascinating and varied sector with age-old tradition behind it and a future demanding an up to the minute grasp of the latest technology. Scotland’s countryside needs a workforce grounded in its heritage but constantly connecting with new challenges and opportunities.

Within the lifetime of today’s students world food production must double, but use less land and fewer resources while protecting the environment and addressing climate change. In the face of such complexity a working life in the countryside will demand knowledge, skill, adaptability and initiative. There is a challenge too for those presently developing plans to provide the skills needed by Scotland’s future rural workforce.

A new national strategy for land-based education and training in Scotland is expected later this year. Information has been gathered to help map out current and future employment trends and related curriculum requirements on a national and regional basis. The strategy will determine priorities and identify where any appropriate growth or changes to the ways courses are delivered might be.

The land-based sector is of major importance to the Scottish economy with on-going demand for newly qualified people as older workers retire and new opportunities emerge. The jobs will be created in every region of Scotland and the majority of the new posts will be filled by newly qualified people from land-based colleges. It is important that we all work closely with industry and funding bodies to ensure delivery is tailored to current and future needs.

In the past decade or so there has been real growth of between 10,000 – 15,000 rural jobs. While mechanisation, amalgamation and rationalisation may have shrunk the work force involved in traditional agriculture and forestry, new opportunities have opened in locally produced and marketed food, or new businesses focussed on wildlife tourism and adventure sports, conservation activity or managing national parks. Independent research has forecast that between now and 2020 rural Scotland will need 3,000 qualified new recruits, many trained to the level of Higher National Diploma.

Currently in Scotland land-based education and training up to HND is delivered through 17 regional colleges and the national provider, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). On behalf of the Scottish Funding Council we have all been working together, speaking to government and industry and exploring a way ahead.

To help develop the new strategy a survey was sent to 9,500 land-based businesses and organisations within industry sectors from agriculture to veterinary nursing and including aquaculture, farriery, horticulture and game management. We held face to face meetings, consultations and arranged focus groups with employers, training agencies and learners. We also explored the available research data.

From all that we gained a better overall understanding of the education and training each sector needs and how that is provided at present.

For many in the sectors the key concern is attracting people to their particular niche and raising its profile. They are not overly concerned whether new recruits are school-leavers or those seeking a career change, as long as they are interested and willing to learn. For that some employers want full-time courses some advocate part-time, with work experience, as the best way to involve new staff in their sector.

Like everywhere the world of work is changing in rural Scotland and we must be sure those keen to accept the exciting challenges not only leave college with the right skills but can update or expand them as their careers develop. Our new strategy for land-based education and training will be no one-off, but a dynamic plan taking account of a fast moving vital sector.

David James is Assistant Principal Further Education at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC),