Fate lies in labour force

By Mike Chapman

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Kiwifruit workers have found employment elsewhere because of the reduction in fruit volumes.
Kiwifruit workers have found employment elsewhere because of the reduction in fruit volumes.

The kiwifruit industry is destined to face increasing shortages of reliable, skilled labour.

Many of the industry's workers have found employment elsewhere because of the reduction in fruit volumes from the Psa vine disease.

The shortage in labour will become even more critical as gold volumes increase rapidly with the Gold3 cultivar coming into production.

It is difficult to estimate exactly how many new employees will be required but the number is in the thousands. The options are to use offshore labour and to identify and train Kiwis.

As an industry, our access to offshore labour is limited by Government immigration policy and the number of recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers from the Pacific Islands who can work in kiwifruit and New Zealand.

Most of our workforce has always been Kiwis and there will be no change to that situation in the future. As an industry, we are committed to a "Kiwis first" policy.

However the RSE scheme has had a significant positive effect on the availability and suitability of labour.

It has provided access to well-trained and motivated seasonal workers from the RSE scheme and the local workforce.

It has also meant orchardists and packhouses have had the confidence to invest in expanding and growing exports. Workforce productivity and quality has also increased. This is essential, because in order to earn our export premiums we need to sell fruit that is consistently high-quality.

There are three solutions to the industry's increasing labour requirements:

*Upskill suitable Kiwis and motivate them to turn up to work every day.
*Educate Kiwis already in the workforce about the excellent opportunities in the industry as gold volumes increase.
*Increase RSE numbers and make use of other immigration schemes.

As an industry, we will need to use all three approaches to satisfy our labour requirements.

The recent welfare reforms have dramatically increased the number of Kiwis available for work. But what we don't want is reluctant workers forced into work by the Government.

The labour shortage is also caused by the high rates being paid for work as part of the Christchurch rebuild. This is taking more reliable and skilled workers away from rural areas.

Many people also tell me the kiwifruit industry has a poor reputation as an employer and has no future because of Psa. We need to work to change this perception.

We are putting plans in place to do that. We also need to explain that we are recovering from Psa and the industry has a solid future with amazing opportunities for motivated workers.

The other critical factor is giving potential workers the right type of training that will directly assist them in doing their job to the highest standard.

Additionally, offering training will enable them to advance to the top jobs.

To achieve this we are working with training providers and the Primary Industry Training Organisation to match skills to tailored courses.

Some of these workers will come from Work and Income NZ; our aim is to work with Winz and employers to train these people to become reliable and valuable employees. In addition, we will also encourage our existing workers to upskill.

An analysis in 2010 showed horticulture lagged behind sectors with trained employees: 49 per cent of horticultural employees had Level 2 or better qualifications, compared with the national average of 66 per cent. This shows a significant under-investment in training. If we are to meet our predicted shortfall, we will have to not only train new workers but also existing workers.

Mike Chapman is the Chief executive of NZ Kiwifruit Growers.

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