Having grown up on a farm, surrounded by farmers who as a rule didn’t have any formal
qualifications in farming, there is a deep understanding for the need to deal with the practical
nature of the occupation. There are great qualifications in all sectors of agriculture, but a lot
of people who have moved into the world of agriculture have done so purposefully, for the
love of the land and the sense of meaning this occupation gives to the individual. While these
farmers didn’t have the qualifications, they knew the intricacies of the land – they could tell
you more scientific details about the effects certain bugs had on crops than most fully-fledged
scientists – they just didn’t have a degree behind their name.
One would, however, be remiss to presume every person working in the Department of
Agriculture is a farmer, horticulturist, or botanist. In fact, the operational workforce within
the Department is more likely to be made up of Human Resources staff, accountants,
managers, and administrative employees.
While conducting training at Limpopo’s Department of Agriculture in 2016, it became clear
that although many of the staff members had the experience to maintain their positions or
be promoted, their “paperwork” didn’t always reflect this. As a result, The Institute of People
Development (IPD) embarked on a Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) advisory campaign. The
end goal was to enable the Department itself to build a RPL Policy, allowing it to RPL people
into positions even if they did not have the formal qualifications required, rather focussing on
their skills set and experience.
Retaining good people in government positions is not easy – and not acknowledging skills is
often the catalyst to staff turnover. There are “sexier” places to work, so this begs the
question, how do you keep and engage good people in the civil service? Research shows it’s
not the salary or perks that make people find other career paths. So, what is it that is making
exceptional people move into the private sector? Experience shows that it certainly is not a
lack of skills. There are a lot of skills there – but they are either not acknowledged, or the
employees are not engaged, so they leave seeking greener pastures. People need a sense of
meaning and purpose, acknowledgement, autonomy and a sense of belonging to stay.
While identifying the skills that are needed is indeed the first step, this in itself isn’t enough.
Experience shows that there is a deeper, underlying problem. Even if the correct skills are
recruited, how can they be kept in the employ of the Department? If people do not have their
own sense of autonomy in their environment, they will not be satisfied. Bureaucracy takes
any bright person and turns them dull; from a floodlight to a candle. Just identifying the skills
needed is not enough; and this is indicative of any governmental department, not just the
Department of Agriculture.
How can this be avoided? One solution is to create a career ladder or career path for the
Department. When a plethora of skills sets and experience is available, recruitment structures
need to shift from qualifications only, to considering experience and skills sets. If this is not
done, all succession planning is completely out of sync.
In Limpopo, the skills that were most in demand were that of management. Putting a BSc
Engineer into a management position, and assuming that because he has the degree he’ll be
able to manage a team is a mistake. In addition, the training departments themselves run
through the Department of Public Service Training, and don’t outsource. This raises concerns
regarding degrees of separation.
Agricultural college lecturers are in the same position as any other college lecturer; they’re
either training from experience, but don’t know how to impart knowledge, or they are
academics who cannot apply their knowledge practically. For this reason, skills development
in training practices is also required.
The only way to identify gaps effectively is to employ proper skills development facilitator
functions. These must be at EXCO level. This function must place a focus on auditing the skills
that are available, while planning for gaps; without a plan, it doesn’t work. Once the gaps are
identified, and the plan has been established, the gaps can be filled – through both training
and skills-based recruitment.
To fill the coffers, the sexiness of agriculture must be sold. When new graduates or candidates
come into the world of work, the Department of Agriculture shouldn’t be a last resort job. It
should be where people want to go. Then the Department will have the freedom of
recruitment, rather than scraping the bottom of the barrel. The key here is to sell the
Department of Agriculture more on career awareness and the broad scope of occupations
available. There are limitless options, most of those employees working at the Department
aren’t actually farmers – but candidates aren’t aware of the vast opportunities that exist
within it.

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