Seasonal workers for the Bay of Plenty's billion-dollar kiwifruit industry are in hot demand as pack houses prepare for a bumper harvest - with one estimating its volumes will be up by 20 per cent.
The news comes hard on the heels of the Ministry for Social Development declaring a worker shortage for fruit pickers in Hawke's Bay which allows overseas visitors, who already hold visitor permits, to get permits to work.
A report by the University of Waikato also shows the kiwifruit industry and associated sectors pumped $1.8 billion into the Bay of Plenty economy last year.
Apata Group Ltd chief financial officer Eugene Crosby said it needed 400 casuals to supplement the permanent work force at its Katikati plant, up from 350 last season.
He said the kiwifruit industry was potentially ''heading down the same path'' as Hawke's Bay so the apple pack houses were not exaggerating the problem they were facing.
Finding staff could be a challenge, Crosby said.
''It is a real struggle the foot traffic off the street which we normally get from backpackers and locals is very slow and well down on previous years. Other pack houses we have spoken to in the Bay here have indicated the same issue.''
Apata was looking for forklift drivers, packers, graders, stackers, quality control, ''you name it we're employing''.
Last season it packed six million trays at Katikati and he said that could climb to 7.5 million trays due to the green yield bounce back and continuing higher overall numbers of gold kiwifruit.
It had invested $22.5m into a new packhouse and other associated infrastructure over the past three years.
EastPack chief executive Hamish Simson said its six sites in the Bay of Plenty could pack about 38 million trays this season, up five million trays on last season.
Its total workforce swells to just over 3000 and EastPack started packing at its first fruit at the Edgecumbe plant yesterday.
Vacancies for EastPack were almost full but he said people walking in off the street looking for jobs had been down year-on-year.
In the past five years the company had invested more than $100m in infrastructure that included increasing cooling store capacity, new grading machinery and technology.
A Seeka spokeswoman said it would need 2800 workers across the business, ''a slight increase on last season due to increased shift hours''.
The business also anticipated it would pack 30 million trays this season - a jump of 20 per cent.
She said backpackers were lighter on the ground and it had noticed its casual Tauranga workforce was smaller than usual.
The company had also lifted its pay rates.
Trevelyan general manager Stephen Butler said it was keeping a close eye on the situation in Hawke's Bay and whether that would flow through to the kiwifruit harvest.
''A labour shortage obviously would impact all areas of the industry, but is to soon to say if there will be a crisis this season.''
It required 1500 seasonal workers but recruitment was going well and it ''appears we have all roles covered at this stage''.
Trevelyan's, which was based at Te Puke, would pack 15 million an increase of three million trays on last season.
Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Nikki Johnson said the industry utilised around 9600 seasonal workers during the harvest.
But it anticipated ''significantly less international students available for work this year and that will mean a greater reliance on backpackers and New Zealanders''.
Kiwi Coral Country Backpackers manager Wes Archer said backpackers were taking longer to arrive in the region.
If they have employment in Hawke's Bay ''they will leave it to the last second before coming over for kiwifruit jobs''.
It was licensed for 500 backpackers and was already booked out for the season, he said.
The Ministry of Social Development's Bay of Plenty regional commissioner Mike Bryant said it was continuing to identify and place suitable jobseekers into packhouse vacancies.
It was meeting with industry partners, representatives from the horticultural sector and other government agencies next week but there had been no formal expression of concern about labour shortages in the Bay of Plenty, he said.
''We're providing all suitable work ready people we can to help through Work and Income, but if more are needed and where an industry so important to this region has a clear and immediate need, we will support them where we can.''
A Zespri spokesman said it was expecting a bigger crop this season than in 2017 with a recovery in Green volumes and continued growth of SunGold.
Zespri sold more than 120 million trays of kiwifruit last season and in February reported on improved forecast returns for the 2017/18 season.