One of Hawke's Bay's largest apple growers is turning a raft of seasonal jobs into permanent roles in a bid to attract staff and stave off the effects of another potential labour shortage.
T&G Global announced on Monday it was creating 150 new permanent roles across its apple operations to attract workers.
The news came on the same day the Government announced that seasonal workers from Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu will be able to enter New Zealand without going through managed isolation from September.
Director operations Craig Betty said despite best efforts to recruit locally last year, the 2020-21 season was extremely challenging.
The limited availability of skilled people ready to work in the regions, combined with a reduced number of Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) team members meant they were still 300 people short each day at the season's peak.
That's despite hiring more than 950 New Zealanders to work alongside the reduced number of RSE team members, he said.
Betty explained those employed in the new roles would move through harvest and post-harvest roles, developing a thorough understanding of both operational and growing processes.
This would include spending time developing 2D orchards as part of the company's pathway to automation.
"Across our growing operations, we're redeveloping our orchards to 2D planting structures to support the efficient use of automation and robotics in the future.
"By ensuring we have skilled team members in our operations, we'll be able to help fast-track this process."
In this way the new roles would help deliver future growth objectives, whilst providing people with an opportunity to further build their skills and capabilities within their operations, he said.
He said although the roles would provide support at the peak of the apple season, T&G would still need to recruit thousands of people nationwide for the upcoming season.
"With these new positions, we expect our productivity to increase as we build our team's
skills and capabilities, however we'll still require additional seasonal team members to join us throughout the harvest."
New Zealand Apples and Pears chairman Richard Punter said the Government's RSE announcement was "a significant shift" that has come "just in time".
"Because we were confronting a disaster towards the end of this year if these people weren't allowed back in. Hundreds of managers around New Zealand are breathing a very big sigh of relief."
New Zealand Apples and Pears chief executive Alan Pollard said he was "very happy" about the announcement.
He is "really delighted" for the Pacific nations as they have "suffered terribly through the pandemic" without the income RSE workers to New Zealand bring to their communities.
"Delighted that they're going to be able to have an opportunity to participate back in the workforce here and return those much-needed funds back to their community.
"It's been particularly devastating and put huge pressure on the workers who were here to support such a bigger group of people back in their communities."
The announcement also brings some certainty to growers for the coming season.
"It was a dreadful season for us. Last season growers were stressed and distressed and were facing the uncertainty of what next season might look like."
Covid-19, hailstorms that wiped out a significant number of crops in parts of the country, the labour shortage and logistics challenges with exporting had resulted in "a terrible year, really".
Pollard said it was particularly difficult for smaller growers and he is aware of some growers deciding not to continue in business.
"What this decision does is create some level of certainty heading into our thinning and harvest."
Pollard said the industry had argued last year that bringing workers from Covid-free countries into MIQ wasn't logical and for industry-managed isolation processes instead, but the Government at the time "for various reasons decided not to accept that and that was their prerogative".
Punter said larger employers will "work their way through the damage that's been done this year".
"The issue that we will still confront is the financial damage done to the smaller growers and the stress and the strain of the mental issues that have been imposed on them are huge, absolutely huge.
"The fallout, the final fallout of our inability to get workers on the orchard is still to be felt."
He said that RSE workers are "highly skilled, experienced, harvesters" and felt a misunderstanding of that is what drove previous policy decisions.
The industry will now be working with the Government to understand the details, conditions and how many workers can be brought in.