Farm consultants are questioning the wisdom of the Ministry of Primary Industries’ decision to establish a farm consulting division they say threatens to suck the limited talented pool dry with the lure of salaries well above market rates.
MPI has started advertising for permanent on farm support regional farm advisors for Northland, Nelson-Marlborough, Taranaki and Southland, offering a salary band from $78,817 to $124,570 per year.
The job description says the advisors’ role is to provide on-the-ground support to connect farmers and growers to the right information, expertise and opportunities to help them navigate requirements around climate, water and environmental management. The unit is newly established.
Skills required include broad primary sector experience, an understanding of rural communities, and problem solving and influencing skills.
But the move has Waikato-based farm consultant Rob Macnab challenging the need for a consulting unit that he sees doing little to advance the quality of consulting services in general, and even competing against those established consultants the service aims to connect farmers with.
“I give full credit to MPI for the provision of up to $22,500 a year to farm consultants to train 100 new consultants up, provided for in the Careers Pathway scheme, that’s a good move,” Macnab said.
But he sees this plan scoring an own goal for the ministry, with salary rates drawing graduates into the government role rather than private consulting.
“To offer this sort of salary level to new consultants in their own business unit just blows the market,” he said.
He said he knew of one graduate with only a year’s experience who is considering a position in the unit offering $105,000 a year, well above what typical consulting firms would pay.
He estimated most commercial consultants will not offer much over $65,000 a year at this point, with graduates typically on about $50,000 a year.
“But if MPI is offering up to $120,000, then we have lost them,” he said.
Estimates are that the total pool each year of graduates with a degree suitable for consulting is about 50 students from Massey and Lincoln universities combined.
MPI is recruiting 16 regional advisors for the positions around NZ.
Canterbury agricultural environmental farm consultant Charlotte Glass had mixed feelings about MPI’s move into consulting after a long absence that ended with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) back in the early 90s.
“The main thing that bothers me is those salaries, particularly given we are recruiting now too. But the graduates we really want are not the ones who are just happy to take the money,” Glass said.
But she also acknowledges that the more people who can be engaged in offering advice in the primary sector, growing the talent base in the process, the better.
“Farmers are having to deal with so many specialists now. If that person [an MPI consultant] can work well with the right consultants, it may be a good opportunity,” she said.
But she said she suspects MPI’s move will have a polarising effect on the consulting community and she can see how conventional consulting companies could view MPI’s move as a threat.
AgFirst director James Allen welcomed MPI’s response in setting up a consulting unit after earlier criticisms that its profile with farmers was too low.
He too was concerned the salary levels could put pressure on private consulting salary bands in future.
MPI’s acting director for agriculture services Dr Chris Rodwell said the agency is seeking people with a broad range of skills, and local knowledge of their farming region will also be important.
A key objective is to help improve on-farm performance and sustainability practices.
He said MPI is aware that about 20% of farmers or growers are accessing advisory services, and there is a shortage of advisory expertise.
He said the salary ranges have been set using an evaluation tool in keeping with rates paid for comparable roles in the primary sector.
Rodwell said the approach will complement MPI’s work with the private sector to expand the farm advisory sector and workforce, including the pathway’s scheme and internship programmes.
Both Glass and Macnab were also concerned about what level of next-tier supervision a new MPI team may be getting.
“My greatest fear is to have a consultant go rogue, convincing a farmer to pursue an area like regenerative farming for example, when they may be in no financial position to do so. You have to have good oversight, without the risk these consultants are simply going to deliver whatever MPI’s regulatory line is,” Macnab said.
He also cautioned job hunters about the risks of signing on to a new government department as the Government is being pressured to pursue greater austerity.
“I witnessed it myself when half the graduates in our year went to MAF in advisory roles, only to be told a few months later there was no position anymore. They were snapped up by the private sector into fertiliser companies and banks.”
MPI aims to expand the service to 80 regionally based advisors by 2025.