Accountants appear to have this decision sorted by the time they start high school. Others, myself included, have never had a career plan and seem to do OK.
My latest re-interest in this phenomenon comes from a workshop I was recently involved in together with other folk from New Zealand’s agriculture sector. In this context I’m using “agriculture” as a catch-all term not limited to just livestock and arable production systems.
Agriculture and its related businesses is the engine room of New Zealand’s economy, as it has been since the first European settlers arrived, and always will be. That said, it is struggling to find the talent it needs to succeed. Whether this talent is skilled researchers and analysts with PhDs, marketers and business analysts, or contract milkers, shearers and fencing contractors, New Zealand isn’t producing enough of what it needs. These people need to be tracked down overseas and encouraged to move here.
So what’s driving this? Corporate rather than family-owned farming could be one contributor; relative salary levels and career advancement opportunities could be another; student loans and indebtedness could be another; so too could be the way New Zealand’s education sector and the general population regards agriculture and agri-business.
The very few high schools that provide agriculture training are perceived to be offering Courses for Dummies. Universities don’t provide agriculture qualifications to the extent that they did Back In The Day. The best of the few agriculture students graduating each year apparently get snaffled as rural lending cadets by banks and other similar organisations, leaving an even smaller group available for other employers to hire.
Changing this is an interesting challenge, and evidence to some of a market failure. But is that really true? Is the issue instead one of communication failure, with the needs of a traditional sector being eclipsed by sectors seen as being sexier and more 21st century?
What do young people with a practical and pragmatic bent end up studying these days? Engineering appears to be a casualty of a similar mind-set or prejudice to the one affecting agriculture.
My university qualification is a degree in agricultural science, obtained from Massey University in the days when it valued its agriculture heritage and offered a four-year degree programme in both agriculture and horticulture. These qualifications at Massey are long gone. So too are the academic colleges that provided them, now bundled into a more oblique “sciences” category.
Why did I do this degree? I was attracted to its broad range of subjects, from pure to applied science, mathematical methods, statistics, economics, business management, policy, machinery, marketing, extension and more. The course for the first three of four years was prescribed, with no decisions necessary until the final year, where some form of specialisation was required. I must admit that I struggled with having to choose from the range of subjects on offer.
The Bachelor of Agricultural Science degree was a great “go anywhere” degree not limited to the agriculture sector, if the subsequent careers of its graduates are to be believed. Yes, it fed the needs of New Zealand’s primary agriculture, but not exclusively. Smart, generalist, well-rounded graduates were also sought after by other sectors. People like this are probably still in demand, which begs a question about why young folk aren't doing applied science degrees and why universities aren’t promoting or offering these courses.
If money was no object, what would New Zealand’s agriculture sector do to ensure that its people talent needs were adequate, fit for purpose and home grown? I don’t know the answer to that but I know that it’s not as simple as running a multi-media promotional campaign extolling the virtues of agribusinesses. Even if this Silver Bullet Campaign started tomorrow, it would take at least five to 10 years before talent started rolling off the production line. Meanwhile a home-grown talent drought grows, and a production line hasn’t been built. Or maybe there really isn’t a problem here that needs fixing?
My Grandpa was always a bit concerned about academics and similar specialists. They worried him. These were people he believed learned more and more about less and less until they knew everything about nothing. Conversely I am one of those people who learns less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything – the sort of person who gets been banned from Trivial Pursuits and similar quiz nights. How fair is that?