Release type: Speech


Address to the Agri-Food National Conference

Agri-Food National Conference 2008 Rydges Melbourne Hotel


  • Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people—traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting today.
  • John Baker, Chair, Agri-Food Industry Skills Council
  • Kath Evans, Deputy Chair, and Board Members
  • Arthur Blewitt, Chief Executive, Agri-Food Industry Skills Council
  • Peter Noonan, Conference Moderator
  • Brian Wexham, Chief Executive of the Institute for Trade Skills Excellence
  • Dr John Keniry, Chairman of the Cooperative Research Centre for Sheep Industry Innovation


  • Thank you John (Baker, Chairman of the Agri-Food Industry Skills Council) for that warm welcome.
  • With grand final fever gripping this city I am very grateful to see I still have an audience and you haven’t all scurried off to the many and varied footy related events around town.
  • When the final siren goes tomorrow you can bet that the team which emerges victorious from the pack will be the one with the best training and skills.
  • And so it applies across the board in the intensely competitive world in which we live. Whether it’s on the footy field or at the industry coalface, the ultimate winners will be those that have the skills and ‘smarts’ to survive and succeed against all challengers.
  • Your industry knows this—hence your ‘It’s all about skills’ theme for this conference. This focus on skills gives you a great opportunity to examine workforce needs, investigate the opportunities presented by new knowledge and innovation and provide intelligence and advice to stakeholders.
  • I understand that your conference sessions have generated some very interesting discussions on how your industry, through innovation, new technologies and efficient management practices, can position itself to address the challenges you face and maximise opportunities to increase your profitability and productivity.
  • So how are you currently tracking?

Importance of Agri-Food industry to the economy

  • Nationally, the Agri-Food industry employs about 8 per cent (just over 850 000 people) of the Australian workforce. As a major employer in rural and regional Australia, the industry is the lifeblood of many communities throughout the country.
  • You make a very significant contribution to the nation’s economy. Last year, food expenditure generated nearly half (47 per cent) of national retail sales (or $106 billion). Food exports contributed an estimated $23 billion in export earnings.
  • And you did all this against some pretty adverse prevailing conditions—drought, equine flu and climatic changes to name a few.
  • As you look to overcome adversity and build resilience, your need for skills, capability building and workforce development has never been more critical.
  • As a basis for going forward I commend your Industry Skills Council’s production of the comprehensive Environmental Scan of the Agri-Food Industries and its accompanying Workforce Development Strategy. This provides a very valuable overview of the industry, the workforce challenges ahead and how these might best be tackled.
  • The Australian Government is committed to working with and supporting you so that you can develop the skilled labour force you need to continue to grow and prosper as you adapt to climate change, accelerating technological advances and global competition.
  • I will now outline some of the practical ways in which we will do this as you seek to tackle the many challenges you face.

The challenges for Agri-Food industries

Climate change and environmental issues

  • First, as highlighted in your industry’s environmental scan, climate change presents a significant challenge with enduring consequences such as protracted drought conditions and water shortages.
  • The Government recognises that sectors within your industry and those connected to it are ‘doing it tough’. Accordingly, we are providing $130 million over four years to help primary producers adapt to climate change through the Australia’s Farming Future initiative.
  • The initiative comprises several elements.
    • FarmReady provides $26.5 million over four years to boost training opportunities and enable industry, farming and natural resource management groups to develop strategies to address climate change.
    • The Climate Change Adjustment Program provides assistance through targeted training on whole farm planning, business and risk management and sustainable practices.
    • $46.2 million for Climate Change Research, to fund on-farm demonstration pilots that reduce greenhouse emissions, enhance soil management, and develop new adaptation technologies and techniques.
  • We also recognise that some communities require immediate assistance to recover from the effects of the drought.
  • From June this year through to 30 June 2009, the Government is providing $14.5 million for transitional income support to provide short-term support to farm families in financial difficulty.

Global Competition and Emerging Markets

  • Aside from challenges presented in the domestic physical environment, Australia’s Agriculture Industry faces an intensely competitive global market environment.
  • But there are inherent opportunities here as well.
  • With more than half of the world’s population and the growing prosperity in Asia, your industry is well positioned to capitalise on this emerging market in our region. It is timely for the industry to look at food production right along the supply chain and use innovation to boost productivity and develop a competitive edge.
  • To help you in this process, the Government has established the Regional Food Producers’ Innovation and Productivity Program which provides $35 million over four years to help regional food businesses respond to market opportunities in our region by developing innovative new technologies and processes. This is where your industry smarts come in.
  • The program includes dollar-for-dollar grants to regionally-based food processors and $10 million for innovation and productivity in the seafood industry.
  • In addition, the Promoting Australian Produce initiative will see$5 million allocated over three years to assist agricultural and seafood industries develop their capacity to better promote and market the benefits of their produce to consumers.

Skills Demand

  • Now let’s look at the issue of skills. In every chapter of your environmental scan you list ‘labour and skills shortages’ as major priorities to be addressed. But with low unemployment the competition for skilled workers is strong across all industries.
  • Yet despite the competition for workers and the drought, employment data for the past ten years shows the Agriculture Industry recorded a modest 0.4 per cent growth (or some 3500 workers). This is great testimony to your resilience and your capacity to respond to adversity.
  • More recently, in the face of strong competition for workers from other industries (such as mining and construction), agricultural sectors have recorded improved employment growth at:
    • 2.4 per cent or 20 000 workers within the past two years; and
  • In the period ahead, and with the Government’s support, implementing your workforce development strategy will be central to building and retaining the skills required for the industry’s continued growth and productivity.
  • Under the Workforce Innovation Program, almost $700 000 has been allocated to two projects. One looks at sharing skilled labour between mining and agriculture industries and the other is addressing high end skill needs in the dairy manufacturing sector.
  • Another Government program helping regional workforce development is the Targeting Skills Needs in Regions program. There are five projects with a total value of $1.3 million in the Agri-Food industry.

Skilling Australia for the Future

  • The Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector is well placed to support the industry as it enhances the skills of workers to address climate change and lift productivity.
  • As you know, the Government is working with the sector to increase the flexibility and responsiveness of training so it is delivered where and when industry needs it.
  • OurSkilling Australia for the Future initiative is a vital response to the need to ensure the training system is more industry demand driven.
  • You heard all about this and the role of Skills Australia yesterday, from Philip Bullock, Chairman of Skills Australia. The Government is keen for Industry Skills Councils to expand their roles and:
    • provide industry advice on workforce development needs;
    • provide independent skills and training advice to enterprises—by working with businesses and RTOs to help them match training needs with appropriate training and develop training agreements; and
    • work with enterprises, employment service providers, RTOs and government to monitor the effectiveness of training places allocated under the Productivity Places Program.
  • This expanded role complements the Skills Australia advisory board and will help to tailor industry development to meet the rapidly changing needs of 21st century Australian businesses.
  • The Government is providing $14.8 million to the Agri-Food Industry Skills Council over three years through to 2011 to perform this pivotal role in the national training system for the industry.

Productivity Places Program

  • Skilling Australia for the Future includes the new Productivity Places Program (PPP) which will provide 645 000 new training places over five years.
  • 392 000 places are allocated for existing workers to upgrade their skills, with most qualifications at the Certificate IV, Diploma and Advanced Diploma levels.
  • It is important that workers gain full qualifications that are transferable from one location to another and help people build a fulfilling career within the industry.
  • The existing worker places will be delivered in conjunction with state governments, with a contribution of at least 10 per cent from the industry.
  • Further 253 000 training places are allocated for job seekers, and include qualifications at the Certificate II and III level, as well as higher qualifications.
  • With regard to your industry, under the PPP, there are 81 registered training organisations (RTOs) offering over 300 Agri-Food qualifications nationally. Around three quarters of these RTOs are based in regional areas. Over 600 participants have enrolled for Agri-Food industry qualifications and more than 95 per cent have commenced training.
  • Overall, the uptake of training delivered under PPP nationally has been very encouraging with over 50 000 enrolments to date.

New Employment Services

  • Another major initiative which will help to address the issue of labour supply is the introduction of new employment services from 1 July 2009. The release of the Request for Tender for the new employment services 2009-2012 is imminent.
  • This$3.9 billion initiative over three years is designed to deliver more flexible and more efficient services. It focuses particularly on helping the most disadvantaged job seekers find work, including those in regional areas.
  • The Government is also determined to improve the system for employers.
  • As many employers know, the problem is not only finding workers but finding workers with the right skills for the jobs they need to fill.
  • Employment service providers will work with employers in identifying local labour and skills needs and prepare job seekers to match those needs.
  • This will include improved linkages to training, including the Productivity Places Program and State and Territory funded training programs. A 20 per cent bonus will be paid to providers for an employment outcome where the job seeker has completed an appropriate accredited training course relevant to the needs of the local labour market.

Employment Brokers

  • As part of the new services, funding of $6 million over three years will be available to establish a panel of Employer Brokers who will work with employers, training providers and other stakeholders to secure sustainable employment for disadvantaged job seekers. In doing this, they will better direct employment services to address skill shortage areas and to fill vacancies that employers so desperately need to fill.

Harvest Labour Services

  • Importantly for your industry, Harvest Labour Services and the National Harvest Labour Information Service will continue under the new employment services to assist growers where considerable numbers of out-of-area workers are required to harvest crops.

Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme

  • The Government also recently announced its Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme to address labour shortages.
  • This three year pilot will examine the viability of a seasonal worker program, including the benefits to the Australian economy and to employers who demonstrate they cannot source local labour.
  • Initially, the program will focus on the horticulture industry. It is anticipated that up to 2500 visas will be granted over the three years providing seasonal workers with the opportunity to work for up to 7 months (at least 6 months) in every 12 month period, in areas of regional Australia where there is demonstrated unmet demand for low skilled labour.
  • Workers from Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Vanuatu will participate in the pilot.


  • Ladies and gentlemen, I appreciate the opportunity your conference has provided for me to discuss the many initiatives the Government is pursuing to address industry skills needs.
  • I look forward to continuing to work with the Agri-Food Industry Skills Council, employer groups, training organisations and employers to address the nation’s skills challenges and ensure the future prosperity and productivity of the industry and Australia as a whole.