Significant challenge posed to UK agricultural and horticultural labour force

Employers, stakeholders and academics within the agricultural and horticultural sector have identified significant challenges to the UK’s labour market, according to a report published by the University of Exeter and The Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture (TIAH).

Despite the vital importance of the sector, underpinning the country’s largest manufacturing industry, representatives from across the industry are witnessing problems caused by immigration policy, Covid and the war in Ukraine, resulting in labour and skills shortages.

The report, entitled ‘Labour and skills in the horticulture and agriculture sectors in England, 2022’ highlights while the farming community is used to dealing with uncertainty and factors outside of their control, change in the contemporary climate is happening at such a rate, industry experts alongside farmers label the situation as ‘in crisis’.

The study assessed the current profile of the agricultural workforce, its skill level and attitudes to training. In all, 681 businesses answered the survey, representing 14,180 members of staff, and as such 11% of the total employed workforce.

Contrary to what the industry has believed for many years, the survey found 84% of primary production staff among respondents were under 55 and just over half fell within the 25 to 44 years old category – a positive outcome.

However, gender and ethnic diversity are still lacking in the industry, with a high proportion of managerial roles filled by males, as well as specialist roles. In contrast, nearly half of unpaid family members were female.

One of the biggest problems faced by employers is the ability to fill vacant positions while also retaining those in employment. A quarter of respondents were seeking staff with the most challenging position to fill being tractor drivers with certificates, followed by seasonal pickers and stock/herdspeople.

The research found just under 45% of businesses had lost staff within 12 months of being surveyed, with over twice the number leaving as had been recruited in that year. At the same time, labour shortages can have detrimental effects on employers’ mental health as well as their own work-life balance and personal relationships.

This labour shortage also likely contributes to the statistics indicating 44% of employers cannot spare the time for their staff to be away from their job for training, yet only 19% of participants believed their staff were sufficiently trained. Alarmingly, the skills which needed most additional training related to health and safety, followed by environment and regulations knowledge.

Turning to employers themselves, almost three quarters of respondents hadn’t carried out any formal management or leadership training in the last three years. Few had any intention of doing so or would attribute themselves to any of their business’ staffing problems. This lack of management and professional development training has permeated the industry, and can affect productivity, profitability and staff wellbeing.

Looking ahead, despite beliefs about the impact of automation and new technology, from data gathered in this survey, labour requirements are anticipated to remain the same or increase over the next five years, particularly in specialist roles and is attributed to business growth.

The importance of maintaining domestic production is crucial to not only the resilience of the food, farming and growing sectors but also in response to the increasing interest in, and importance of, food security. Access to a sufficiently skilled workforce remains crucially important to the country’s need to deliver safe, nutritious, affordable and sustainable food.

Commenting on the report’s findings, TIAH Chief Executive Stephen Jacob said: “TIAH was created to support stakeholders within the agriculture and horticulture industries to increase their competitiveness and sustainability.

“We commissioned this report to increase our understanding of the labour requirements within England and hope its findings influence policymakers, industry representatives and agricultural business employers and staff.

“At farm level, if your business struggles to attract or retain staff members, we’d recommend using a specialist auditor to assess on-farm culture and identify any weak spots.

“We also recommend employers make sure training is incorporated into their business strategy as well as taking opportunities to develop their own leadership and communication skills to increase their appeal to potential new recruits.

“The skills we learn may only have a life span of one to three years, so lifelong learning is vital to adapt to changes in innovation and best practice. Our goal is to support farmers and growers, and their employees, through change by helping them secure the right skills to run professional, productive and profitable businesses to protect and enhance the environment. TIAH provides quick and easy access to find the right learning and development opportunities.”

Five steps to staffing success:

  1. Help your staff to grow in post

Employee coaching is a powerful tool for managers who want to help their team develop. Build bonds and develop staff skills using the GROW coaching model.

  1. Develop your skills to gain more from your employees

At its core, successful coaching relies on active listening and thoughtful questioning. Developing your own skills in these areas can help you communicate better with your team.

  1. Identify routes for staff progression in your business

Many employees will want to see their career develop into new roles, so it is important staff can see this kind of success in your business. Look at job profiles of similar jobs to those in your business to see how your employees’ roles could develop over time.

  1. Find out how CPD can develop staff skills

Continuing professional development can give your staff new skills, drive efficiencies and give them more pride in their jobs.

  1. Build confidence in your workforce

Self-confidence can be a catalyst to success. Additionally, tackling employees’ worries can help them overcome their weaknesses and build their trust in you and commitment to your business.

To find out more about these steps and other Essential Skills courses, available free for a limited time, visit