Three Lessons from Working in the Australian Cotton Industry


Dr Nicole McDonald is a postdoctoral research fellow supported by the Cotton Research and Development Corporation and to investigate the future workforce requirements for the Australian cotton industry. She is a member of ACCELL (the Australian Collaboratory for Career, Employability, and Learning for Living) and the National Farmers Federation 2030 Leadership team.

I’m a careers researcher in agriculture. Specifically, a careers researcher in the cotton industry. I’m concerned with what motivates people to choose a career in the cotton industry, what they need to thrive in this career, and how we can help people experience meaningful and decent work. This has driven my research. On reflection of my research journey, I thought I’d write this blog about three lessons I’ve learned working in the cotton industry.

  1. We share the same concerns about the future of work and the future of our world. When I tell careers people I work in the cotton industry, I inevitably get met with questions about water and the sustainability of the industry. These are good questions to ask. These are questions I too ask. Like a lot of people, I want to work in an industry that is socially responsible, that is taking action to mitigate climate change, and focused on sustainability. What was a revelation to me when I first started researching careers in the cotton industry was that these are also the core values held and questions asked by policy officers, research scientists, agronomists, and farmers who choose to grow cotton. Are we farming in the most sustainable way we can? How can we get better? And they’ve been asking these questions for a very long time (way before I took an interest in their industry), exploring them in depth and finding solutions which have led to widespread practice changes, improved environmental outcomes through reduction of pesticides, and yes, sustainable management of water. These questions continue to be asked within the industry as farmers live at the coal face of climate change, feel strong attachment to their land, and work to see their farms be a viable option for the next generation. My first lesson learned: If you want to know about someone’s values in how they do their work, ask them. Don’t rely on outdated stereotypes or secondary sources not directly connected to agriculture.

  2. The future is bright with job opportunities for diverse talent. Don’t be fooled. It’s not all doom and gloom for the agriculture industry. Although you’d be forgiven for thinking so when looking projected job growth. But employment figures that focus on agriculture, forestry, and fishing tend to only encompass on-farm jobs and don’t reflect the wider pool of jobs that are also subscribe to the mission of ensuring the sustainable production of food and fibre to feed and clothe Australia and the world. The farm is absolutely the heart and soul of the industry but when we look at the RIASEC model of career interests – each one can be explored through work in and add value to the Australian agriculture industry. Agriculture needs communicators, investigators, entrepreneurs, and creative problem solvers. People who want to get out in the field, into the office, into the lab, into the classroom. People who want to work with ideas and people who can ground these ideas in reality and influence their adoption. People who can see the bigger picture and people who delve into the details. What this also means is that people in agriculture are diverse. Second lesson: there are people in agriculture who share my interests, and there are people in agriculture who share your interests too. Whatever your interests, they can be explored in the cotton industry.

  3. Give it a go – your proactivity and openness to experience will be rewarded. One of the first interviews I ever did was with a well experienced farm hand who had built a career in the cotton industry but originally hailed from a metropolitan region. All of his friends had stayed in the city and many worked as labourers. When I asked about what the difference was between him and his friends, his response was ‘I guess, a sense of adventure’. He described a strong openness-to-experience personality trait. Features of his job that contributed to his satisfaction were large amounts of autonomy, a variety of challenges, and actually seeing what you had achieved at the end of the season. He explained, you are expected to be proactive, to take responsibility for your work and to find ways to make a practical difference. As my interviews have continued I’ve found these ‘Person and Environment’ features across many different jobs within the cotton industry. I’ve experienced it myself. Six years ago I knew nothing about agriculture and was a complete outsider, and yet, anytime I’ve put my hand up or wanted to try something in the cotton industry I’ve been encouraged to give-it-a-go and to find ways for my research to have impact – this has helped me find my own sense of purpose and meaning in my career. Third lesson: tap into your openness-to-experience because the opportunity for meaningful work and to make an impact abounds within the cotton industry.

In learning these three lessons through my work, I have cemented my desire to continue my research and career in the cotton industry and agriculture. I passionately believe that working to ensure food security for our country and the world is one of the most meaningful pursuits that people can dedicate their time and effort to. But without happenstance setting me on this path, I would never have found this passion. As more Australians become less connected with our food and fibre industries plenty of people who could find their purpose in agriculture are missing out. Career development professionals like you have a major role to play in helping to attract our next generation of talent to agriculture. If you have any questions about agricultural careers or the cotton industry, please get in touch, [email protected].

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