Annee Bayeux, Chief Learning Strategist at Degreed, discusses the skills agriculture leaders will need to build in their workforces to make automation and other transformations a reality.
THE SKILLS REVOLUTION IS COMING TO AGRICULTURE
Like many industries globally, agriculture is going through a significant transformation thanks to advances in automation, robotics, blockchain, and artificial intelligence (AI). Alongside this, pressure on the agriculture system, both in terms of supply and supply chains, as well as societal pressure to become more sustainable, is driving new innovations in farming such as precision and vertical farming. In other words, the farm of tomorrow may look very different to what we’re used to.
That requires a host of different skills, because with any transformation, you need people equipped with the skills and knowledge to make it a reality. Agriculture has a unique challenge in upskilling its workers ready for farming 2.0 as they are often distributed across a site (or multiple), they can be seasonal workers, and they may not immediately understand why they need to learn a new skill, especially if it’s to do with automation.
UPSKILLING ENSURES FUTURE WORK OPPORTUNITIES
Conversely, upskilling can provide relief for workers concerned about automation taking their jobs. Estimates by the Penang Institute suggest that over half of occupations within agriculture will be automated within the next two decades, leaving farm workers doing the majority of their work behind a screen for the first time in the sector’s history. The kinds of skills these future farmers will need will be vastly different to the skills being used today.
THE ROBOTS ARE HERE
This isn’t something out of a science fiction novel, it’s actually happening today. In Australia, a “hands-free farm” project is being tested by Charles Sturt University to understand the potential and impact of AI and robotics on farming. The farm uses drones, robotic tractors, harvesters, and air quality/carbon sensors, along with AI for automated management decisions.
Likewise, Israeli company Phytech and Swiss agrichemical company Syngenta have collaborated on a monitoring system that uses plant growth and soil moisture sensors to enable precision farming practices. Crop growth and soil health are continuously monitored so farmers know exactly when to water, fertilise, pick, and take mitigating action if a problem (or pest) occurs.
PUTTING FARMING ON THE BLOCKCHAIN
Other advances are changing how the entire sector will operate and meet demand. Technology like blockchain has the potential to increase transparency and traceability across the value chain. As McKinsey and Co. explains, “This will likely result in increased efficiency, reduced waste, and shrinking profit margins.”
Next generation evolutions in farming will see the introduction of biotechnologies and gene editing (like CRISPR) as the world tries to find solutions to the looming food supply challenge.
SUCCESSFUL AUTOMATION STARTS WITH SKILLS
You can have the most advanced, best automation or robotics on the market, but without the right people working alongside it with the right skills, its performance will be hindered. More farms are exploring automation, robotics, and other digital transformations due to the potential safety, cost savings and operational efficiencies promised by such technologies. When planning a change as big as bringing automation to your farm, it’s vital that you consider the skills that enable such a transformation to succeed in the long run. The case for building skills that enable automation and AI is clear. But what are they?
IDENTIFYING THE SKILLS NEEDED
Data and digital literacy are obvious skills, but they need to be developed to a certain baseline across the farm so that everyone is ready to work alongside future technologies. This is where L&D performance models can really help define more relevant and business-driven training.
Basic software skills will be essential, as tomorrow’s farmers will likely be working from tablets and desktop computers. Team communication tools, spreadsheets, and data analytics software will be the new hoes and shovels. Farmers will need to analyse a lot of data, find patterns, and draw insights from this.
The mainstay of precision farming is the Geographic Information System (GIS), so farmers working on these kinds of projects will also need to feel confident running machinery that’s guided by GIS.
Of course, these are the technical skills we know farmers will need in the immediate future, but technical skills degrade quickly. A degree of flexibility and the ability to learn new skills quickly will be needed for farmers to constantly adapt to new technologies, techniques, and demands.
There are other skills that help to make automation and AI implementation go a lot more smoothly and for people to get used to new processes and roles. These include change management, communication, leadership, and teamwork.
MOTIVATE WORKERS TO LEARN
Motivating your people to learn is another important aspect of the overall success of your automation implementation. If they don’t understand the ‘why’ behind learning, they aren’t likely to engage with anything you plan. Moreover, if they don’t have the time in the work day to learn, or the tools to access learning, they will quickly disengage.
Embedding learning during free time in the work day is a powerful way to grow critically-needed skills in a consistent way compared to taking days and weeks off to reskill completely.
The infrastructure you put around learning has a huge impact. It can be as basic as ensuring people have access to the internet during their work day, to engage with online learning, or giving farm workers access to tablets and smartphones so they can learn no matter where they are.
KNOW YOUR STARTING POINT
Every farm will be different, with a different starting point and a range of skills needed. So, the first step in implementing an upskilling programme is to know where your baseline is. What skills do your workers have now? What tasks and jobs are taking place on your farm, and what are their skill requirements? Spend some time answering these two questions, and you’ll soon see the scale of the upskilling needed to get future-ready.
When you have an idea of what’s needed, you can get started with a handful of focus skills. Don’t be tempted to ‘boil the ocean’ and do too much, too soon. The best upskilling initiatives are built in seasons — for one period you might focus on digital skills, the next, on change management. Take it step by step and you’ll constantly chip away at the skills you’ve identified as critical for your farm in the next decade.