How to sell careers in agriculture to millennials

Group manager for assurance services at NWK, 34-year-old Jacqueline Mathews, maintains that South Africa’s agriculture sector needs tech-savvy, curious young people.

According to Jacqueline Mathews, young people would be more inclined to consider agriculture as a career if they understood its crucial importance.
Photo: FW Archive

How did you get involved in agriculture and why did you choose to do so?
I married a farmer from the Lichtenburg area. After I qualified as a CA (SA), we moved to the farm and I started working at an auditing firm in town. The agribusiness NWK was a client of the business.

Through my dealings with NWK, I became increasingly interested in the inner workings of the agricultural industry. When an opportunity became available in the internal audit department of NWK, I applied for the position.

In my experience, people working in agriculture really do care about farmers. They understand the demands, challenges and opportunities that the primary producers of food and fibre in South Africa face. Compared with the rest of the local corporate world, there is much better interaction between the role players in the agriculture sector.

The sense of community that runs through the entire value chain is a huge bonus. For me, it’s insightful to understand farming from both perspectives, that of the farmer and the business, and simultaneously to be involved in the full value chain.

Would you encourage other young people to consider a career in agriculture? 
It’s estimated that the world’s population will reach more than nine billion by 2050, which implies that agricultural production will have to increase. More people means that more food will be required, so there’ll always be long-term opportunities in agriculture.

This increase in food production will have to be achieved against a backdrop of many challenges, including climate change, limited resources, increased difficulty in obtaining land, and the uncertainties regarding land reform. I believe, though, that as we address these challenges, more opportunities will arise.

Farmers and agricultural companies alike will have to do more with less and aim for maximum output. It’s also clear to me that opportunities in the agriculture sector are broadening, bringing about new and exciting career opportunities for young people, especially in categories such as internal auditing, fraud auditing and corporate governance.

Commercial agriculture is changing rapidly. How does this benefit young people in terms of employment?
Modern agriculture is becoming a high-tech industry that combines environmental sciences, information technology and software in order to produce ‘more crop per drop’.

As agriculture becomes increasingly high-tech, it will grow more complex. Farming will require more advisory services and solutions beyond the Businesscurrent products and services.

The agricultural industry will need marketing and advertising professionals not only to sell products to consumers, but to determine what they need, and advise them accordingly.

The challenges of climate change and limited resources will bring about career opportunities for scientists to study the soil and changing weather conditions, and conduct genetic research to develop new strains of plants that are resistant to drought and pests.

The small-scale and subsistence farming sector has by and large been left behind. In what way can young people get involved to ensure sustainability and profitability?
There’s a need to significantly increase the productivity of smallholder agriculture and ensure long-term food security. This in itself brings about different career opportunities.
Subsistence farmers should be encouraged to pursue sustainable production through the use of improved inputs.

Another aspect that can be considered is developing high-yield crops for unique soil types.
Improving rural infrastructure, such as roads, is also crucial for raising productivity through reductions in transport costs and the loss of perishable produce.

Mentorship programmes are becoming more important for providing assistance to smallholder farmers looking to grow their farming activities. I’d like to see more enthusiastic and energetic young people getting involved with mentoring. We need passionate young people to assist these producers to get on the road to sustainability and profitability.

What do millennials offer the sector that is new, innovative and exceptional?
Millennials, which generally refers to the generation of people born between the early 1980s to the late-1990s, are adaptable and curious, which makes them ideal candidates for developing innovative strategies to achieve better results in a creative way.

Don’t forget that today’s young people are ‘digital natives’; they grew up using computers, portable devices, the Internet and social media. They pick up and implement technology faster than many employees who were already working when the new technology was first adopted.

This will support the high-tech agricultural environment we’re moving towards.

Millennials’ knowledge of new technologies and the daily use of mobile devices and applications make them experts at optimising time and resources. They’ll definitely be keen to implement this, to the benefit of all employees and the company as a whole.

Millennials are also pushing for change in the world, including in the marketplace and the workplace. They don’t accept “that’s the way it has always been done” as a feasible answer. They’re used to investigating everything that catches their attention.

Are role players in the agri value chain doing enough to promote the sector as a possible employer?
No. I’ve found that young people are definitely not aware of the interesting variety of career opportunities in agriculture. Many people, when they think of careers in agriculture, immediately think of farming. They lose sight of the fact that the farmer is merely one cog in a very long chain of opportunities in agriculture.

It’s a concern that we’re losing growing numbers of young people to contract work in other countries. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that a lot of them remain abroad and emigrate permanently.

Furthermore, many young people are influenced to choose careers other than farming or in agriculture-related fields because of the challenges faced by farmers and the broader agriculture sector, such as droughts, policy uncertainty, dwindling margins and increasing production cost.

I really believe we need to find ways to make agriculture a more attractive career choice to the younger generation. We’re not only missing out on acquiring youth and energy into the sector, we’re also potentially losing the next generation of farmers.

How should the sector go about presenting itself as an attractive employment option for young people? 
Young people of today want to learn and develop, and they have definite long-term career goals. If they don’t see a future in agriculture, they simply won’t invest time and effort in the sector.

What they don’t realise is that the challenges facing the sector also create many new career opportunities, and that agriculture, now more than ever, needs their tech-savvy brains and curious minds to improve processes within the industry.

In my experience, young people place great importance on social causes and having a sense of purpose. They want to know how they fit into the bigger picture and feel the relevance of what they’re doing. They want their work to have meaning and purpose.

I believe that if young people understood the importance of agriculture and food security, they’d realise that their skills could contribute to improving the industry, and would be more positive about agriculture as an attractive career choice.

Phone Jacqueline Mathews on 018 633 1000, or email her at [email protected].