Skills crisis needs fixing

By Mike Chapman

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A number of factors indicate the kiwifruit industry is on the verge of a monumental labour shortage.

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 and skilled labour.

This has come about as many of the industry's workers have found employment elsewhere because of the reduction in fruit volumes from Psa.

The shortage in labour will be made even more critical as gold volumes rapidly increase with Gold3 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 and positive impact on the availability and suitability of labour.

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

It has also meant orchardists and packhouses have had the confidence to invest in expansion and growing exports. Workforce productivity and quality has also increased. This is essential, as to continue 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.

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

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

We are putting plans in place to try and 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, offer future training that will enable them to advance through the industry to the top jobs.

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

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

An economic analysis in 2010 showed that horticulture lagged behind other sectors with trained employees.

Forty-nine per cent of horticultural employees had Level 2 or better qualifications compared with the national average of 66 per cent.

This represents 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 our existing workers.

Mike Chapman is Chief Executive NZ Kiwifruit Growers Inc.

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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