When you dont know what you dont know


Few areas are more critical to the security and well-being of young people than decent work. It impacts on every aspect of their lives: independence; mental health and well-being; and social interaction.



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When I found myself managing a National Careers Institute grant to support young people from all backgrounds and experiences to thrive in a career in agriculture, the first thing I discovered was there was a great deal I did not know about this space and I was going to need a lot of support.

I am very grateful for that support and particularly grateful to the people who introduced me to the knowledge, expertise and support networks I now find myself surrounded by

Best practice principles put young people and employers at the centre of the experience. Source National Youth Employment Body

I have long been a fan of the communities of practice model where people with common goals work together for the greater good. This grant has allowed me to join one and I am grateful to the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Mission Australia  for the opportunity.

I am also very grateful to career education specialists Janine Wood from The Careers Department and Lucy Sattler from StudyWorkGrow for sharing their knowledge 
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I am very grateful for the people who have identified best practice and shared their knowledge with me

I am very grateful to the Atlassian Foundation and Atlassian team members helping me master program management software .

I am also very grateful to long term team members Opal Heart Media and Ground Creative who look after our media and web services.

We are all working together to explore a model for agriculture that offers young people an enriching experience of work that sets them on the path to independence and future security.

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Action4Youth has three phases 

21st century workplaces – Labour shortages, silo thinking, competition for the same talent pool – identifying the elephant in the room

Photo credit 

“If you believe in your heart that you need to do something, and you know in your heart it’s right… and especially when you’re in a position to make the change, you can’t back away from it,” Alison Mirams 

As reported in the Stock and Land “Dairy Australia has launched a national marketing campaign to attract new workers to the industry, after a survey found 25 per cent of farmers were unable to find labour or access workers with the required skills.

The survey found 22pc cent of farmers were unable to fill vacant positions, within three months, and 40pc had lost one, or more staff, in the 12 months prior to the survey.

You can see part of the campaign here

I truly hope it is successful and I would be very interested to see how Dairy Australia plan to monitor and evaluate its success. What ROI are they predicting?

I am sceptical as my experience agrees with Dr Nicole McDonald and her team and their excellent research that helps address the elephant in the room  “Career development and agriculture: we don’t need a marketing campaign”

Yesterday I attended a construction industry event. The key note was Alison Mirams ( awesome speaker, highly recommend)  Agriculture got a mention as an industry like construction not as ready to embrace 21st century challenges as it could be 

The conversations were interesting. Despite the keynote being a woman and the industry recognising attracting and retaining women could help address its workforce shortage ( 12.7% of construction industries people are women – same as 35 years ago) the sponsor representative used predominantly male language – “the guys in hi vis” the “blokes in the offices”

The Australian construction industry is in crisis. There are some startling stats beyond escalating costs of production ( I discovered the construction industry talks about REO costs like agriculture talks about fertiliser costs)

Stats like 1550 insolvencies and high rates of suicide (190 ppl)  per annum are heartbreaking. Young construction workers are ten times more likely to die by suicide than die from a workplace accident on a construction site.

Alison is on a mission to change the Culture Standard and is the chief crusader for the industry to have a 5 day working week.- Project 5 –  A weekend for every worker  Her message is “People are our Greatest Resource”. When we look  after the health and wellbeing of our people they will be more productive and she is working with the University of NSW to measure this. It hasn’t been easy with 75 rain days between Jan and July seeing a 54% productivity drop.

Getting back to the dairy industry and agriculture in general, my personal experience and 20 years of working with young people in the sector and in schools has shown me people want rewarding jobs where they feel the work they do makes a difference and they are valued for their contribution. In a world where young people’s career choices are more and more driven by their values  I think Alison Mirams has got it right.  We need to start with the elephant in the room – if you are going to employ people then firstly you need to be prepared to gain the 21st century skills that will earn your business top marks for “GREAT PLACE TO WORK”

We need to understand what drives people to make the career decisions they make.

Before we start spending mega bucks on marketing campaigns lets all ensure our industries are them image we want the world to see

We need to show we care.

In reality lets be honest the first stage ( not the last stage) would be upskilling employers ( see Dairy Australia stage process below )

It doesn’t matter what industry we are currently in there is a scarcity of labour in an overemployed market and I was heartened yesterday by the number of times the panel mentioned the power of collaboration

“If you believe in your heart that you need to do something, and you know in your heart it’s right… and especially when you’re in a position to make the change, you can’t back away from it,” Alison Mirams

Extract of article from Stock and Land 

DA regional services general manager Verity Ingham said the issue had been compounded by COVID-19 and the nationwide skills shortage, across a range of sectors beyond agriculture.

The campaign would promote the benefits of working in dairy farming and encourage Australians to explore a job in dairy.

Featuring dairy ambassador Jonathan Brown and seven dairy farmers, the campaign showcases why working in dairy matters, highlighting factors that have been shown to motivate people to consider a job in dairy.

“Competition for jobseekers in regional areas is fierce, so finding good, reliable people is a priority for dairy farmers,” Ms Ingham said.

“Keeping them is just as important.

Ms Ingham said coronavirus had an impact on both international and cross-border workers.

“Because there is such a range of jobs on dairy farms, closing international and state borders really stopped that flow of employees across the nation,” she said.

“Dairies are traditionally a place for that backpacker market and it burst quite quickly.”

DA looked to local markets but found many potential workers didn’t know what was required on farms.

Ms Ingham said the advertising campaign was the first step in a four-pronged approach to attracting, and retaining, workers.

“We’re going out into regional areas looking for non-traditional workers in the dairy industry, so not necessarily poaching from the beef or sheep farm, next door,” she said.

This would be followed by career education about dairy for school, university and TAFE students.

“The third and fourth parts are around supporting our farmers, connecting them with job agencies and places where there are job seekers,” she said.

“We’ll also be skilling the job agencies, so they know about dairy, and then connecting our farmers into those networks.”

The last stage would be skilling farmers in how to employ new staff

“It’s a little bit like becoming a cafe owner – you don’t necessarily start the cafe with looking for staff, you do it because you love coffee and cake,” Ms Ingham said.

“Farmers are often getting into farming, or even succession, because they love the outdoors, putting food on the table for the nation and animals – not necessarily to employ people.”.

DA was also setting up a pre-employment program, she said.

“We are working with those job agencies and networks, in terms of making sure that anybody who hasn’t been on a farm, or who has very little experience on farms, gets those really core skills,” she said.

“Once they land on dairy farms, they have got some of those basic skills, in terms of a skill set they need.”

We dont have a skills shortage problem we have a workplace culture problem

Yesterday I attended a forum for business leaders who had been invited to have input into the RAI Rebalancing the Nation – Regionalisation Consultation Paper 

There was a comment made by an expert in the skills training space that resonated with me

“we don’t have a skills shortage problem per se we have a shortage of workplaces with the culture that people want to work in”

Last night I hosted a workshop for 15 of our Young Farming Champions facilitated by leadership culture expert Cynthia Mahoney 

The conversations around the table indicated we have a lot of work to do in agriculture on our CULTURE. What is exciting is these young people are investing their time as life long learners to help us get it right


How do you fix a problem not enough people seem to realise we have?

My post yesterday came from a place of deep hurt. In fact my entire world is driven by my emotions.

When I came back to agriculture 20 years ago I knew there was a very good reason why I left in the first place. I didn’t want to milk cows but I did want to use my talents ( whatever they were ) to get the best outcomes for the industry my family loved so much.

It turned out I did have a talent I didn’t know I had and that was designing and delivering action learning programs for young people 

To hone my talent I sought our John Hutchison and Deanne Kennedy at JayDee events who have been delivering Cows Create Careers for the dairy industry.

John and Deanne are magnificent humans and together with Cathy Phelps ( who at the time headed up the Natural Resources Management department at Dairy Australia) we created a farmer focused first iteration of Picasso Cows where young people in primary schools explored healthy landscapes, clean waterways and energy efficient dairies. I got it funded and piloted it for two years and then Dairy Australia wanted it.

The first Picasso Cows were traffic stoppers

I was aware the budget would be in Marketing and Communications (M&C) . The people who run schools’ engagement at Dairy Australia are nutritional experts. The Dairy Australia version of Picasso Cows would not be farmer focused and instead have a health and nutrition focus

All well and good, that is their area of expertise,  but not my passion so I walked away. Handed over all the IP everything for no remuneration and knew that it was in good hands been looked after by John and Deanne.

Is Picasso Cows still being looked after by John and Deanne? No it isn’t. When will people in Marketing and Communications realise grass roots programs are successful because they are grass roots programs and the best people to deliver them are the grass roots ?

A couple of years ago Dairy Australia made the decision to no longer fund Cows Create Careers . It was so rewarding to see the farmers go into battle to have Dairy Australia reverse their decision. As I said John and Deanne are magnificent humans, they have a rapport with the demographic of farmers I don’t- the over 45’s

I also created a highly successful series called “Jhet and Emma – A Day in the Life of Two Young Girls working on a Dairy Farm ” series for the NSW DPI LandLearn program. The DPI insisted it be housed on their website. When they shut down LandLearn did they let me know the Jhet and Emma series would disappear into the ether? No they did not. Hours and hours and hours of pro bono time and a highly successful education series gone forever .

And this was just the beginning of the extractive world of agriculture I found myself in. After 20 years I feel like an abused housewife who knows deep down no matter how much people say they are going to change, the problem is too endemic, yet she keeps going back for more.

So I ask myself, why is the culture in agriculture like this and there is a good reason

Everyday WE ( Australians) wake up expecting food at rock bottom prices to be a birth rite. We are asking farmers to do what they do and we aren’t prepared to value it. The system proliferates this mindset. The supermarkets wake up everyday on a race to the bottom competing on price alone.

Food is 10% of income in this country. 70 years ago it was 50%. Our farmers getting up everyday to produce food at rock bottom prices gives us a disposable income to spend on other things.

Our farmers feel undervalued. The sector feels undervalued. Undervalued people tend to focus on problems and don’t have the energy to seek out solutions. They tend not to value people who do.

Change starts with us

How do we start the regenerative process?



Best practice workforce development – what does success look like?

I am very excited that the charity I founded has received National Careers Institute funding to prototype and pilot a model for best practice workforce development.

I am putting a lot of pressure on me and the people I am surrounding myself with to ensure we deliver a successful model that is replicable and scalable by any industry.

Working in agriculture for the last 20 years I have seen so much money wasted.

I have also seen people and organisations delivering pockets of brilliance . How impressive is this People in Agriculture  which is a partnership between a number of agricultural sectors leveraging the brilliance of the people at Dairy Australia who created People in Dairy

In the first instance – surely we could all work miracles if we bought the pockets of brilliance together so we could learn from each other because this is what people committed to best outcomes for the people they serve do.

Whilst I have seen some brilliance at Dairy Australia  I have seen a lot of things that don’t make any sense to me at all. My area of expertise is designing and delivering programs that empower young people to take action on issues that matter to them.

I created Picasso Cows for Dairy Australia. That  meant I have worked with their Marketing and Communications teams because that’s were the budget for school engagement sits.

Can agriculture fix its images and perceptions issues through marketing and communication?

I am 100% confident that it cant.

The only way we ( farmers and the businesses that support us) can attract and keep employees is by being the places that people are proud to work for.

This requires the capacity and capability to self reflect on our businesses. Simple things like how does my business present to the public. One example rubbish and piles of old machinery lying around are not a good look.

I spent 25 years working in the world of retail. We got taught this stuff. Who is helping people in agriculture self reflect.

When we get ourselves right THEN and only then can we let the people in marketing and communications do their thing  with confidence

Organisations like Dairy Australia can lead by example and show us how its done.

Lets start by taking the pressure off the Marketing and Communications team – they cant fix things that are out of their control

In 2022 will we have the courage to hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask the big question ?

Our Young Farming Champions are participating in a series of workshops with Cynthia Mahoney doing a deep dive into Alexandra Carter’s groundbreaking book “Ask for More” 

I am enjoying the sessions and this resonated with me

Many people believe that it takes two to make a conflict, but you only need one car to have an accident! When you examine what brought you to this place, you’ll have better information to help you move through it. If you’re internally stuck, you can still go through both sides of the situation and look at the conflicting feelings, patterns, and facts that are leading to the stagnation you feel.

Today I sent our Impact Report to our funding partners. I shared my personal joy at getting the best return on investment for the organisations we work with who have all recognised investing in young people (K-12, higher education, early career) is where Australia is going to have the most impact.   Young people may only be 20% of the population but they are 100% of the future and very importantly young people are aware and they are active and they have the capacity to take others on the journey .   

I shared that 2022 has been a rewarding year for me.

      • The highlight has been getting $ from the National Careers Institute to protype a workforce strategy that any sector can replicate and scale.
      • Receiving state Government and Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation funding for the Young Environmental Champions program
      • Our YFC being invited to speak at conferences across the world

I also shared my frustrations and hopes and dreams

Whilst I enjoy supporting young people (K-12, higher education and early career) to take action on issues that matter to them, the agriculture sector remains a sector I don’t understand and continues to frustrate me.


    • The agriculture invests in programs that aim to lift young people up whilst the wider culture in the sector rewards them for learning to fit in, for staying small, for not self-promoting.  Cynthia Mahoney touched on it in a recent YFC workshop  
    • The agriculture sector is desperately short of labour but has no workforce strategy
    • The agriculture sector has very black mark for modern slavery – yet appears to makes no real effort to address it

In 2022 will we have the courage to hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask the big question ?


Agriculture – how do we make it an esoteric career choice no more????

I remember when I was returning to the farm and still doing a few shifts in pharmacy and I would meet new people and they asked me what was my day job I would alternate between saying I was a farmer and a pharmacist

I remember vividly the day some -one replied “That’s an esoteric career” when I said I was a farmer . ( BTW I had to look up the word esoteric later)

This inspired me to go on a journey and work with the Action4Agriculture Young Farming Champions to “normalise” careers in agriculture.

How are we doing that?

We start by telling people agriculture- farming, food and fibre is so much more than the farm

  • It starts before the farm with custodianship of the land and the sea.
  • It progresses to encompass the farm itself;
  • The stage between the farm gate and the point of sale, which includes value-adding; and shaping of, and by, buyers’ preferences.
  • Throughout the process, there is a significant supply chain component.
  • None of the players in any of these stages stands alone. They are all linked in a web of interdependencies, where harm to one weakens the whole (for example, poor labour hire practices injure the reputation of the whole sector); and, conversely, enhancement of one strengthens the whole (for example, a focus on continuous learning in one industry spills over into another).
  • Cooperation among the players in the various stages benefits the entire sector more than if one gains a temporary benefit by disadvantaging another.
  • Unlike the 20th century, the 21st century has seen a growing realisation in the various elements of the Australian agriculture (farming, food and fibre) sector that they all hang together, and that cooperation is more constructive than conflict.


Then we go on a journey to show and tell and highlight:

We talk about where the growth jobs in agriculture will be in the future

And we advocate to ensure that everyone feels physically, emotionally and identity safe in their workplaces

And we share this with the world in our monthly Muster 


A career in agriculture is not for the faint hearted – Do we spend enough time building human capital and resilience ? 

I am forever curious and I spent yesterday reading the National Agricultural Workforce Strategy 

A career in agriculture is not for the faint hearted – Do we spend enough time building human capital and resilience . Graphics source 

The strategy confirms that Australian agriculture is a complex and sophisticated system. Its performance relies heavily on the quality of its people. It highlights the need to:

  • modernise agriculture’s image
  • attract and keep workers
  • embrace innovation
  • build skills for modern agriculture
  • treat workers ethically.

I love the way the report talks about agriculture being so much more than the farm and to recognise this the committee chose to use the term “Agrifood”

It is a spectrum comprising a number of stages. Starting before the farm with custodianship of the land and the sea, it progresses to encompass the farm itself; the stage between the farm gate and the point of sale, which includes value-adding; and shaping of, and by, buyers’ preferences. Ultimately it is the end consumer’s preferences that dictate the workings of each stage. Throughout the process, there is a significant supply chain component.

It goes on to say

None of the players in any of these stages stands alone. They are all linked in a web of interdependencies, where harm to one weakens the whole (for example, poor labour hire practices injure the reputation of the whole sector); and, conversely, enhancement of one strengthens the whole (for example, a focus on continuous learning in one industry spills over into another). Cooperation among the players in the various stages benefits the entire sector more than if one gains a temporary benefit by disadvantaging another. Unlike the 20th century, the 21st century has seen a growing realisation in the various elements of the Australian AgriFood sector that they all hang together, and that cooperation is more constructive than conflict.

The committee noted with concern

 the converging problems of agricultural workforce shortages, reduced employment opportunities for young people and poor perceptions of agricultural jobs and careers.


As we face increasingly complex major global and domestic challenges, Australia’s social and economic future is reliant on a fit-for-purpose education system and easy to navigate training pathways that equip young people with the skills they need to transition through school, to higher education and/or the workplace and thrive

The committee then made this beautiful statement

If the sector places capability development of its people at its core, if a general recognition prevails that this is a highly diverse sector encompassing a number of stages, if the ultimate arbiter is acknowledged to be the expectations of citizens and the tastes of consumers, if industry leaders rise to the challenge, and if they unite to plan actively to recruit and educate the new workforce, Australian AgriFood will not just survive in the 21st century. It will thrive.

I came to agriculture from a 25 year career in retail and I have always been frustrated by the lack of desire or lack of availability in the agriculture sector to upskill from a human capital perspective.

For example  I spent 3 years at uni learning pharmacology – my degree did not prepare me for the world of retail but the University of New England and Financial Management Research Centre (FMRC)  filled that gap 30 years ago. I don’t know of anything similar in agriculture except the Rabobank Business Management offering . I havent done the Rabobank course so I don’t know if it covers team management and motivations.

I was so impressed by the FMRC course I still have the manual 30 years later

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Is agriculture having enough conversations with our team members? Are we doing regular surveys like this one from McKinsey? What do we know about our team members?

There is some very important work being done by Professor Peter McIlveen and Dr Nicole McDonald looking at the Vocational psychology of agriculture. (e.g., the skill, knowledge, openness to change, and motivation of farmers). Their research couldn’t come at a more important time

This research by McKinsey shows why we shouldn’t guess and why the research is so important. 


Agriculture creating a culture where people feel physically, emotionally and identity safe

This is the fifth article in a series that looks at the Action4Youth workforce Attract-Train-Retain workforce strategy and road map  model created by the Action4Agriculture team in partnership with Professor Felicity Blackstock. 

The model acknowledges careers’ awareness starts in primary school and leverages the relationships that Action4Agriculture’s school programs have developed with schools over the past 15 years

It was rewarding to see the announcement yesterday that the cotton industry is increasing its investment in understanding people and how they think, feel and behave.  

One of the key elements of the Action4Youth model is the pastoral care package.  If agriculture is going to Attract, Train and RETAIN people, they must feel physically, emotionally and identity safe in their workplaces

The graphics shown above have been created for a program aimed at attracting young people who are disengaged from school to the foundation careers on farm/in the oceans for the dairy, fishing and wool industries

It can be adapted, replicated and scaled (or shrunk) for all industries.

Interestingly enough that is where it is getting the most traction. There are no shortage of industries with dollars to invest in best practice workforce engagement strategies that don’t have what agriculture has.

The question is are we making the most of what we have?

Agriculture is not alone in having a huge labour shortage.

With Australia’s  birthrate at its lowest ever level of 1.6 (more people choosing career over having children) and reduced accessed to overseas workers we are going to have to be very committed to building and investing in relationship building with the next gen workforce. We have to be equally committed to agriculture being the image we want the world to see.

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Agriculture in self reflection. What does self awareness look like? What is the image we want the world to see.

One of the golden rules in the Young Farming Champions program is to avoid re-enforcing the negative and using deficit language ( which agriculture by the way has turned into an artform)

But if we are going to address the pain points in the Action4Agriculture Action4YouthExplore, Connect and Support young people to thrive in careers in agriculture Attract-Train-Retain Workforce Strategy and Roadmap we must be prepared to put our dirty linen out for washing

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And like all forward thinking sectors there are times when self-awareness and self-reflection are key to being the change required to be the image you want the world to see.

The graphics below are from the  YouthInsight Study done in WA in2017

Scott Graham from Barker College has identified others


Action4Agriculture’s work in schools has shown it IS possible to change of teachers and students images and perceptions

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Its possible to raise awareness of the diversity of careers

But we cant do it alone and Scott Graham and Barker College cant do it alone.

Creating resources and putting them on a website and hoping teachers see them is an equally ad hoc transaction that it not a best return on investment of expectations for anyone.

None of us can do it alone and we cant do it in silos.

How do we build a culture of co-operation in the agriculture sector  because we are not alone in needing to attract the best and brightest

Job vacancies rose 18.5 per cent to hit a record of 396,100 in the three months to November 30 as employers embarked on a hiring spree at the end of the delta lockdowns in NSW, Victoria and the ACT, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported