CASE IN POINT | Agricultural Research Council
Professional Development Programme
It is for this reason, says Umlaw, that the ARC has a Professional Development Programme in which the focus is pipeline development. “The focus of the programme is on how we can develop and nurture skills not only for the ARC, but also for the agricultural sector as a whole,” notes Umlaw. The ARC encourages its employees to participate in different forums where they can showcase the ARC’s work. This is an opportunity to share and exchange experiences, while opening avenues for different grants and funding mechanisms for the various research projects running at any given time.
She adds that, in resourcing a research and development organisation such as the ARC, many factors have to be combined. “You are not only dealing with a specific set of people and skills – it is much broader: from farm workers and technicians all the way through to the professionals in the research laboratories.” Thus, in its employee-retention processes, the ARC ensures that it has well-rounded people who have full knowledge of the business at whatever level they are in. “The biggest part of the value chain is people, and we take care of our employees right from the point when we recruit them, and we look after their welfare even when they are retired,” she says.
Umlaw adds that, throughout these processes, there is one pertinent issue that stands out and needs to be addressed: the employee’s life cycle within the ARC, which has to be managed very closely to ensure that employees are able to deliver the final products required to change, and make a difference in, the lives of ordinary people.
Attracting and Retaining Top Talent
How, then, does the ARC attract and retain top talent for its laboratories and in other fields? Umlaw says the ARC is no different from any other science council in the country. “One of our principal challenges is that of an ageing workforce; the highest number of people exiting the organisation are those going on retirement,” she reveals.
Whilst there is a core group of employees that remain loyal to the ARC and contribute to staff stability, the turnover of young professionals is high, as is the case in other sectors.In the event that experienced employees have to leave, the Human Resources Department has a succession planning strategy to ensure that the specialist skills of scientists in key areas are not lost and that there is continuation of both skills transfer and research. Retaining young professionals is somewhat of a problem for the ARC, as graduates are generally not willing to be farm workers, but want to work in the research laboratories right away. It is in the light of this that the ARC is accelerating a programme designed to ensure that as many of its employees as possible study and acquire at least a masters’ degree, or even a doctorate. At present, about 11% of the ARC’s employees have doctorates, a figure which Umlaw says can be vastly improved upon.
“Our main focus is on accelerating the acquisition of postgraduate qualifications within the field of agriculture, as we realise that the majority of those who study engineering, science and technology only obtain a first degree. For us to continue to be a food-secure nation, we have to encourage further qualifications to ensure that we have researchers who will undertake research with a view to ensuring a sustainable food economy,” reveals Umlaw.
Empowering Communities and Women
As an organisation whose aim is to change people’s lives, the ARC’s responsibility does not stop with empowering only ARC employees. According to Umlaw, the ARC grants bursaries, has different training programmes around the country and is involved in exhibitions such as the Bien Donné Agri Cape Week. Farm days are a norm, and, recently, the ARC showcased its work at the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Fifth Summit in Durban. An animal-production site in Limpopo, where the ARC trains and empowers farmers in different aspects within agriculture, is another example of the empowerment initiatives of the ARC, for, as Umlaw says, “we do not only conduct research in laboratories, but also ensure that it reaches the people who will benefit the most from it”.
Women, who perform most of the work in agriculture, are not being left out of the equation, notes Umlaw. “Seventy-three per cent of our employees come from the designated groups, of which 42% are women! Given that it is women who often have to work in the fields; this is a huge success for us. However, there are very few women who have postgraduate qualifications higher up our corporate ladder. We have to, and can, improve on this.”
Sustainable Partnerships for Food Security
Umlaw reveals that a number of issues surfaced as a result of its recent employee opinion survey, and chief among these are how the ARC is going to convert the positives in the organisation into ongoing successes. “We have a good culture within the organisation. This is the direct result of the manner in which we recruit, train and support our employees. We have a calibre of employee who is loyal and motivated,” she reveals. In general, when employees join the ARC, they often stay for a long period, which creates the stability that the organisation needs.
Umlaw acknowledges that it is imperative to make agriculture more attractive to young people; hence the ARC’s efforts to accelerate the acquisition of postgraduate qualifications. In order to further stimulate interest in agriculture, the ARC may even consider starting at the school level by encouraging an interest in research among young learners. Umlaw also notes that the cogs in the machine are already being oiled, with the Agricultural Sector Education Training Authority (AgriSETA) considering a programme to introduce agriculture at Further Education and Training (FET) colleges around the country.
Investment in research and development is very low, at both the local and international levels. Umlaw says that the government and the private sector have to be involved in growing the country’s research and development (R&D). “By involving different stakeholders and working together on how we can grow the agricultural sector – particularly R&D – we will continue to be a food-secure country,” she concludes.
Did you Know?
The ARC is the entity responsible for maintaining national assets and undertaking programmes or rendering services that are required from time to time by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and other stakeholders.
Resourcing for Food Security
The Agricultural Research Council (ARC) is going the extra mile to ensure that it keeps the kind of quality skills it requires to move the organisation forward. The human resources function is playing a key role in this regard, as it is the cornerstone of talent management and retention.
Makgomo Umlaw, Senior Manager: Human Resources, is responsible for propelling this people-centred organisation towards its destination of retaining and developing highly skilled professionals. “In a research environment such as that at the ARC, only the best will do, as these professionals not only use their skills to carry out research, but also have to be able to transfer skills and research outcomes to the people to enable them to change ordinary lives.”
by Andrew Ngozo