SECURING A future workforce is vital for Scotland’s rural economy.

According to Lantra chairman Henry Graham, improving the consistency and opportunities available for young people from early on in the schooling structure right through into further education is crucial to ensure that more people are attracted into the sector.

During a sit-down interview with The Scottish Farmer, Mr Graham, who is also one of Fergus Ewing’s agricultural champions, advising on future policy options within education, said that progress was already well under way in preparation for the workforce upheavals ahead, with increased opportunities for school pupils and leavers to enter into rural skilled jobs.

“Until this year, there were no apprenticeship level vocational training opportunities in agriculture offered north of the Central Belt. Students in the north had to travel to Oatridge, Barony , Elmwood for their college training" noted Mr Graham. "It is great news that SRUC have decided to reopen Craibstone in Aberdeen for apprenticeships, which is vital to bringing new talent in to the sector.

“There has been a substantial uptake in interest from school leavers applying for Ringlink’s internship programme which offers work-based places to 16-year-old school leavers through a joint partnership with SRUC, who provide the academic training at Craibstone,” said Mr Graham.

The programme offers a six-month placement which commences with three weeks residential training at Craibstone, covering areas such as health and safety; then the participants are placed on farms which are members of Ringlink for six months, receiving an apprentice salary.

Mr Graham continued: “In 2013 there were eight applications made for six places compared with 54 applications for 15 places in 2017. We are so enthused to see this increase in interest and are working hard to look at developing a shared apprenticeship scheme which would mean farm placements could be shared between businesses, splitting the economic costs of hosting an apprentice for the full duration. We hope that through this initiative, which is in its final funding phase, we will attract more businesses to sign up to offer themselves as hosts and in doing so can expand the number of places on offer,” stated Mr Graham.

The Forestry Commission advertised for eight new apprentices down in Dumfries and Galloway, organised with SRUC at Barony, and saw a record-breaking number of applications – over 200. Both the Forestry Commission and Ringlink have demonstrated a commitment to offering teenagers not only a route into the sector but the likelihood of finding employment at the end and a guaranteed wage while training.

From farming, to forestry, to horticulture, Mr Graham applauded the efforts of Scottish councils in their uptake in offering apprenticeships within horticulture, taking on around 200 young people across the whole of Scotland.

“I had my eyes opened by Glasgow council, who have been great ambassadors for apprenticeship training, and their whole philosophy is to take on new people every year, train them up, but not expect to retain them. Students from all over the world have come though their training system. This is all part of the thought process – as it allows more people to gain knowledge and skills within horticulture and allows the chain to keep rotating. This similar ethos would work well across the various industries,” said Mr Graham.

An interest in agriculture often develops from a very young age, and a strong schooling structure will impact a youngster in their future career choices. Mr Graham highlighted just how important it is to offer more opportunities to school pupils and to gain the backing and support of teachers across Scotland to value rural careers.

“I am a great believer that the school stage is the key area we can enthuse more. There are only 40 pupils in the whole of Scotland doing a national progression award – a Nat 5 in rural skills. This course is only available in Aberdeen but there is a huge interest from schools in Dumfries and Galloway to look to add the course to their curriculum.

"In Dumfries and Galloway, some schools offer a ‘skills for work’ course in fourth year with around 400 pupils enrolled throughout the whole of Scotland in the last year. The concern is that there isn’t a course on offer in most parts of Scotland in the following year, which is putting a lot of pupils off taking the course in the first instance, as they can’t see progression,” said Mr Graham.

The lack of courses on offer does in part come down to teachers and headmasters, who have the authority on what their school chooses for its curriculum. I asked Mr Graham if agriculture was viewed negatively and what could be done to get more youngsters valuing and choosing to pursue a rural course at a young age.

“‘Rural skills’ is unfortunately still thought of as a course for the lower achiever, so we have taken action to establish this as a career for all and have recently produced about a dozen videos by Lantra and young farmers, showcasing the importance and value of agriculture and the many roles within it,” he replied.

“These career videos promote the varying roles on offer within the rural sector, whether it’s in animal care, veterinary medicine or the equine industry etc. We want to make it clear that if young people can study rural skills at school, it will open the door to a huge number of different opportunities across the sector.

“There also needs to be a shift in attitudes from the top down within education, we need to target teachers and headmasters, who have a lot of authority on what their school chooses for academic disciplines. Rather than going completely down the academic route, where students can stack up huge levels of debt, more youngsters are looking for opportunities to earn as you learn, which rural roles and courses can offer,” concluded Mr Graham.

Moving forward, he revealed that part of his recommendations to the Scottish Government will involve the training up of ambassadors to go into schools and enthuse pupils on the variety of roles which are available in the rural sector. There will also be more information in the coming months on initiatives being drafted to offer specific technical training within apprenticeships e.g. in areas such as poultry, dairy, soft fruits and pigs.