Putting the tomorrow in tomorrow’s schools

29 Apr 2019

Apricot Science

Following extensive consultation in 2018, a government appointed taskforce put together a comprehensive report called ‘Our Schooling Futures: Stronger Together’. This report makes many excellent recommendations, which will hopefully result in a number of far-reaching changes. Eight key issues were identified that are designed to make the needed structural changes, and the next step is to look at what is taught and how our young people are prepared for their adult lives and careers. Although the report is moving in that direction, it does not grapple with that issue.

For survival and growth, all our industry will need is access to the right people, with the right skills and motivation to fill permanent roles, and the willingness to upskill and progress their career. Horticulture, like many of New Zealand’s industries, is highly sophisticated, adopting world-leading science and practices, to deliver only the highest quality fruit and vegetables both at home and around the world.

Here, horticulture is based on exclusive varieties, sustainable production practices, sophisticated post-harvest technology, and consumer-centric marketing programmes. To achieve all of these, we need highly skilled people, which in turn requires a consistent, responsive, and adaptable education system that will meet the industry’s needs.

Horticulture needs a whole range of skills, including highly qualified science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates. Whether it’s food or soil science, harvester or automation design, genetics, entomology, statistics; if you can name it, it’s got an application in the horticulture industry. Alongside our skilled growers and the rest of the industry that supports them, such as technicians, mechanics and so on, this is the future of our business.

None of the above people can meet our skill requirements if they do not successfully complete STEM subjects at school in the first place. Without STEM, we do not have the high-quality people we need.  For example:

Science - Plant scientists have a valuable role in the industry, with biologists identifying and studying crops and pest plants, and chemists researching how herbicides and pesticides, and how they can interact with the crops they protect. Career pathways include pest control, fertiliser development, agrichemicals, water, soil, and air analysis, and many more.

Technology – A rapidly growing field in horticulture, technology is what drives us forwards. More advanced computer systems, faster automation, smarter devices, and product tracking; all of these can and will make the lives of growers easier. An app that can identify sugar content in citrus, or a smart biosecurity system, are only the beginning.

Engineering - Agri Agricultural engineers work in all areas of the industry, and act as some of our best problem-solvers. When it comes to new machinery, such as harvesters or waste disposal systems, these are the people who pave the road to the future – literally.

Mathematics – Maths may seem like an odd one out, but statistics and calculations are vital when working out harvest yields, agrichemical balances and, of course, industry value. When it comes to raw data, horticulture is full of it, and these are the people who make sense of it all.

The need for STEM graduates in horticulture is only going to increase. Our industry will need over 20,000 new entrants over the next decade to keep up with our incredible growth. A huge proportion of these people will need STEM training, and many careers in horticulture will soon require mastery over these 21st-century skills.

And so, we ask that the next chapter in the ‘Our Schooling Futures’ programme puts STEM in pride of place in the school curriculum. Horticulture, and indeed all of New Zealand’s industries, needs this for the future prosperity of our country.

 - Mike Chapman, CEO