As I have previously written, there is a digital revolution underway in Australian agriculture, with the timely confluence of record production levels marking agriculture as one of the key ‘industries of the future’. Yet it is the digital revolution that is changing the traditional harsh image of farming to an industry sector that is increasingly becoming attractive for the younger generations. But will the pace of implementation of automated farming technologies threaten or enhance the job opportunities of the future?
Many experts such as billionaire investor Jeff Greene believe that artificial intelligence, big data and robotics pose a serious challenge to both white collar and blue collar jobs. It has been predicted that by the year 2025, robots will take up a third of all jobs. There is no doubt that these factors will play a key role in the future of agriculture as well. Food and farming systems are now already experiencing a new era of revolutionized farming. There have been major advances in autosteering of farm machinery, and there is a range of farm production and sensor technologies directed towards livestock monitoring and the optimization of water, fertiliser and pesticide applications.
Research on automated farming is also rapidly expanding. For example, the University of Sydney has research underway to train a ‘farmbot’ to herd livestock, monitor their health and check they have enough pasture to graze on. There is also a range of hovering platforms (drones) suited to ultra-high resolution scanning and targeted surveys, and even for interaction with the environment such as targeted spraying of weeds for example. The first fully robotic dairy in the southern hemisphere is in Tasmania, indicating that Australia is both a developer and rapid adopter of new technology.
So we would be wise to perhaps advise caution on predicting the future job market for young people in agriculture. However, there are four significant factors at play in Australian agriculture at present:
- Continued strong growth in agricultural production – in 2016 the national value of agricultural output increased by a remarkable 28 per cent. The global importance of agriculture in providing sufficient food for the ever-growing human population means that Australian agriculture will continue on its major expansion path barring national climatic occurrences.
- Low unemployment levels – the level of unemployment in Australia is currently around 5.6 per cent and appears to be relatively steady between 5-6 per cent, and in the long-term, the Australia unemployment rate is projected to trend around 5.6 per cent in 2020.
- On-going skills shortage in Australian agriculture – many experts have written about the relatively low agricultural graduate level compared with the available jobs, with estimates showing that there are around three jobs available for every graduate. While there is now a consistent increase in university enrolments, it is unlikely to change this statistic significantly into the near future.
- Baby Boomers retiring – across farming and the agribusiness services sectors there is good evidence to show that the average age is approaching the mid-50s, indicating a potential surge in retirements over the next few years.
In conclusion, there will be increased automation and robotics in Australian agriculture, but the future remains bright for those wishing to make a career in this key industry sector.
Dr Ray Johnson is Managing Director of Agricultural Appointments, a recruitment company that specialises in agriculture, wine and food.