It isn’t easy being a dairy farmer. A lot of people think we just milk cows all day, but the reality is farmers need a wide range of skills to manage a
sustainable farm business.
In fact, the National Centre for Dairy Education estimated that dairy farmers need over 170 different skills to run a successful farm business.
Apart from milking, farmers have to feed livestock, make hay and silage, operate machinery, protect waterways, manage milk quality assurance and supervise
It really is a skilled profession, and one that rarely gets the credit it deserves. This is underscored by the crippling skills shortage that the industry
continues to face.
To this end, we rely on our political representatives to address the problem. Unfortunately, there is still a misapprehension from some in Canberra
that farming is an unskilled industry which should be able to source labour from the pool of unemployed in regional areas.
Reality again is different. The local labour just doesn’t exist, and many dairy employers rely on skilled migrants brought to Australia under subclass
457 visas to fill core on-farm roles. Many farmers even consider overseas workers to be integral to their long-term business strategy.
The dairy industry has found the 457 visa very useful. It has enabled us to recruit skilled workers from overseas for farm management roles. And it
has also given these workers a pathway to permanent residency. Everybody wins.
We were struck a blow when the 457 visa was abolished and replaced from March this year by the Temporary Skill Shortage visa, a scheme that operates
in two streams – for short-term labour for up to two years with the option of a two-year renewal, and for medium-term labour for up to four years.
Only the second stream offers the possibility of permanent residency.
Industries eligible under each stream is determined by the Regional Occupations List. Dairy farming is currently listed as a short-term skill, which
will only hamper our ability to use the scheme because the prospect of permanent residency is an important factor in attracting skilled overseas
It should be clear to even casual onlookers that agricultural industries are not just facing a “temporary” skills shortage. This is a problem we have
been battling for years and one that will only grow worse unless it is addressed now.
It is strange that dairy farming has remained on the Regional Occupations List yet has not been placed on the Medium Labour TSS.
One concern is that dairy farming could be wiped from the list entirely when the list is reviewed in July. We can’t let that happen and advocates in
the industry – including Australian Dairy Farmers and Dairy Australia – are working to ensure farmers’ voices remain strong on this issue.
It is vital that while the skills shortage persists, dairy farmers remain on the Regional Occupations List and that the federal Government take immediate
action to allow skilled overseas workers to gain longer visas and a pathway to permanent residency.
Given the size of the dairy industry it will take considerable time to correct the documented skills shortage with suitably qualified Australian workers.
In the meantime, dairy farmers will continue to struggle to staff their businesses with skilled workers and need to have reliable access to skilled
Let’s not forget that farmers are not the only people who stand to benefit from allowing skilled overseas workers opportunities in Australia. A recent
report into the rural workforce found that immigrant farmers not only fill labour shortages, but they also bring with them new technological insights
gained overseas to apply to Australian farming, providing a valuable contribution to regional Australia.
As the Regional Occupations List comes under review, this insight hopefully provides our decision-makers with food for thought and an urgent lifeline
to an industry that still faces a critical shortage of skilled labour.