Hawke's Bay's buoyant apple industry is opening up opportunities for young people keen to make horticulture a career.
Employed at T&G's Whakatu packhouse for the 2014 season, Deanna Muir and Maatu Akonga were among a dozen workers identified as having the potential to go further with the international company, which purchased Apollo Apples last year. T&G asked the 12 seasonal workers if they would be interested in enrolling for EIT's Certificate in Sustainable Horticulture, offering a package that provided two days' guaranteed work while they studied.
The Level 3 programme encompasses fruit production projects which can be associated with off-campus locations such as local orchards.
Having completed their certificates, the pair are now full-time staff members and are now looking forward to signing up for horticultural apprenticeships next year.
That will involve two more years of part-time study to gain EIT's Level 4 National Certificate in Horticulture (Advanced), a programme designed around the industry's busiest times of year.
Ms Muir admits that after leaving Hastings Girls' High School, packhouse work was going to be "a gap filler" for a couple of months. However, the certificate study proved "a big eye-opener. I didn't realise how much was involved in horticulture," she said.
The 19-year-old has enjoyed acquiring new skills, such as setting out an orchard to optimise the fruit trees' exposure to the sun, and driving tractors and hydraladders. With her sights on an orcharding career, Ms Muir is taking up the company's suggestion to compete in the T&G Fruitgrower of the Year competition.
From Waimarama, Mr Akonga was on a Work & Income benefit before joining the packhouse, which he thought would give him a couple of months' work. "The course was offered to me at the end of the season. I am still here over a year-and-a-half later," he said.
A company check showed Mr Akonga, 21, had a health issue, and T&G orchard labour manager Maurice Windle said addressing that lifted his reliability and made him a good prospect for the programme.
Mr Akonga enjoys the variety of orchard work, finding every day involves different tasks.
Employing more than 500 people in a season, Mr Windle said the company recruited a large number of casual staff before finding two "gems" like Mr Akonga and Ms Muir.
"They have done amazingly well and now have a career path. In the past, that didn't happen. People were working in the industry because there was nothing else to do. Now there's a huge future for them."
Snowballing sales of Hawke's Bay fruit prompted the company to launch the scheme last year and it intends to continue with it.
"Hawke's Bay's apple industry is growing at a rapid rate because of investment by the company's shareholders," Mr Windle said. "They have set annual targets for carton production and are exporting to over 40 countries. Demand is strong in India, China and the Middle East."
After a lengthy period of dismal returns, Mr Windle said growers had seen a return to profitability in the last three years.
"We are positive about getting young people up and running in this industry. It's where the future is and, hopefully, they will be managers and leaders later on."