New skill sets needed in farm workers of the future

Larger farms already well into technology adaptation but properly trained employees key to the future

High-tech tools are going to require highly skilled workers down on the farm.

In the not too distant future, farms will depend on high-tech workers with titles like tech-gronomist, ag tech integrator and knowledge translators, a recent conference of the Canadian Agriculture Human Resources Council (CAHRC) heard.

In a presentation entitled Agriculture Skills for the Future, Stuart Cullum, president of Olds College in Alberta spelled out the kinds of skills that will be needed to ensure farming takes full advantage of new technology to increase food production to meet the needs of the global population.

Without trained farmers and workers, agriculture will be left behind, he said. Agriculture is off to a good start with 96 per cent of farms with sales of $1 million or more reporting significant technology use. However, much remains to be done to bring technology to all farms.

The 2016 agriculture census found that 70 per cent or more of farmers in the age groups between 25 and 59 reported using technology in their operations. And among older producers, the figure was near 50 per cent, he said.

The first two green revolutions in agriculture involved adoption of high-yielding and GM varieties of crops while the third green revolution will be about the greater use of technologies to improve farm decision-making and management and to deal with environmental issues, he said.

That’s where the tech-gronomist, who can make recommendations based on the data that is produced through big data and artificial intelligence, the ag tech integrator who can make new applications by using existing applications in other industries and applying them to agriculture and knowledge translators who can create new applications for agriculture about technological innovations come in. These and other skilled workers will be essential throughout the entire agriculture supply and production chain. In addition to big data, Cullum said unmanned vehicles and machines, drones and robotics will be key trends in the coming years.

The World Economic Forum has projected the level of use of key technologies by 2022 with big data and analytics leading the way at 85 per cent followed by internet-based marketing, machine learning, cloud computing, digital trade and virtual reality.

Cullum said around the world, 40 per cent of employers have problems finding skilled workers and that demand will only increase as greater technical proficiency is required from those working in the technology fields. While artificial intelligence and robots could take over about 75 million jobs by 2022, their use will create 133 new types of positions for trained workers.

His institution is trying to prepare graduates who can close the gap with relevant technology training and education and farming experience. At the same time, he said it will take a significant investment to re-skill the current workforce. In addition to the technical skills, workers also need soft skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, communications, creativity and leadership.

Debra Hauer, project manager at CAHRC, said her organization has developed agriculture-specific human resource tools designed to support modern farm operations to manage their workforce. They include Agri Skills, online and in-person training programs, and the Agri HR Toolkit — an online resource guide and templates to address the HR needs of any business. For agricultural organizations there are customized labour issues briefings that apply the new research to specific commodities and provinces, to explore the labour implications within their specific area.

She said one producer told her that he sees autonomous trucks becoming common in the next two to five years and is looking for a truck mechanic now with the technology skills to be able to install/update the software when it is readily available.

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