A shake up of work skills training cannot come sooner for the troubled New Zealand shearing industry.

The shortage of trained, skilled, young shearers is rapidly becoming a problem for the New Zealand sheep farmer and, in fact, the wider rural community.

While wool returns continue to take farmers on a roller coaster ride with prices rarely covering the cost of shearing a sheep, removing wool from the sheep remains a must-do task down on the farm. For health reasons alone (flystrike etc), sheep must be shorn.

For that to happen, of course, the country needs a full complement of trained, skilled shearers to complete the job.


In today's environment the numbers are simply not there and as a result the numbers of training providers are also diminishing.

Shearing industry training is under pressure.
Shearing industry training is under pressure.

However, in announcing a shake-up of work skills training Education Minister Chris Hipkins said vocational, trades and on-the-job training have been allowed to drift and the changes will give industries greater control over all aspects of vocational education and training, making the system more responsive to employers' needs.

It's an idea that, if it works, has support from Primary ITO and Federated Farmers.

Primary ITO develops and maintains the national standards for more than 250 qualifications across the agriculture, horticulture, food processing, seafood, equine and sports turf industries.

It leads the training of more than 28,000 people, across 30 primary industries.

And therein lies one of the major problems.

Insiders reluctant to go public for fear of their futures in today's unsettled environment, agree funding has been one of the major factors in the demise of training for shearers, in particular.

They say funding can fix the shearer shortage problem, but a far leaner system of allocating funds needs to be found.


Despite farmers voting to drop the compulsory wool levy earlier this decade, some funding for training remained through the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC).

Money trickled down to all manner of industry training, including shearing, from TEC to Primary ITO which then distributes funds to contracted training providers.

The unfortunate thing about that, insiders claim, is that the funding is simply not enough by the time of reaches the pockets of the training providers.

Insiders claim up to 40 per cent of the money from TEC is sucked up to help pay administration costs for Primary ITO and therefore unavailable for its intended purpose.

Hipkins said the Government wants more workplace learning, more apprentices and more chances for people to earn while they learn.

One of the key changes is to set up industry-governed workforce development councils by 2022 to make programmes more responsive to employers' needs.

The councils will replace industry training organisations like the Primary ITO and over the next two or three years the role of supporting workplace learning will shift from ITOs to training providers, with holding organisations formed to smooth the transition.

Primary ITO chief executive Linda Sissons said the primary sector has probably done worse out of the education system than most others and the concept of a unified vocational education and training system led by workforce development councils is a positive step.

However, there is a lot of work to be done before the changes are rolled out and Primary ITO will work with officials to make sure any workforce development council properly represents primary sector employers and that it understands the sector, she said.

Primary ITO could be one of the first to be incorporated into the new system because it already has a better footprint across its sector than similar organisations.

The long-term aim is for trainees to be looked after by a training provider rather than the ITO but that transition will not happen overnight because providers don't exist, so there will be no noticeable changes in the immediate future, which could run to a few years.

In the meantime, the ITO's core roles of working with employers to identify necessary skills, create qualifications and courses to meet those needs and set standards for their assessment remain the same.

Initially, it's a change of brand more than anything else, she said.

In the last 12 months the Primary ITO has launched a range of micro-credentials, short pieces of learning that address specific industry needs by allowing participants to up-skill quickly in specific areas, much of it in the workplace.

Sissons said those courses are already proving their worth and the Government's plan for a single campus network overseen by one large institution runs the risk of what might be seen as more wide-ranging qualifications being favoured over a more nimble approach where training needs can be met quickly as they are identified.

However, she is encouraged by a positive response from Hipkins to those courses and says she will keep him to that.

Federated Farmers workplace skills and training spokesman Chris Lewis said changes will be judged on whether they can get more people work-ready in the rural sector.

One of the biggest challenges is delivering real education to upskill workers in rural areas is expensive because of remote locations and the small classes.

Courses need to be well run and well funded and opportunities for training need to be fair and equitable.

"Whether people are in Auckland or in the back blocks, funding has to be there to ensure people are educated to the same standard."

The people on a workforce development council will have an important role to play and it's crucial they are not isolated from day-to-day reality, Lewis said.

"Even in my role with Federated Farmers I spend a little bit off-farm and that removes me from the reality of what's going on on-farm. So you can get that disconnect.

"What we want is people who have a passion for education, who walk and breathe that and who have the tools to connect with staff. If we get the right people in those roles who understand the issues then the potential is there."

It's important not to drop the ball during any changeover to a new training system, Lewis said.

"We can't miss a beat over the transition period. We can't afford to be bumbling around because that will just increase the shortage of skilled staff and that's the last thing we need."

Under the proposed changes anyone enrolled in a training programme will have that commitment honoured by the Government so Sissons and Lewis encourage employers and employees considering training to sign up now.

A Bill is likely to be introduced to Parliament in the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, Federated Farmers says it will support the reintroduction of a compulsory wool levy, but only if there is a sound plan of action.

Without that plan, the industry was facing "death by a thousand cuts", Federated Farmers meat and wool chairman Miles Anderson said.

"My fear is that the next time there is a downturn in sheep meat prices, we'll lose a critical amount of breeding stock from the sector and, ultimately, we could see a hollowing out of rural economies, with mass tree-planting on productive farmland," he said in a statement.

Earlier this year, the rural lobby organisation's meat and wool council voted to support a levy, provided the Wool Working Group came up with a "clear, practicable and compelling"blueprint for lifting the fibre's profile and returns.

The group, made up of 20 wool producers, processors and other industry representatives, was formed last year and charged with developing a pan-sector action plan.

It already had assurances of government support for an initial period to set up a governance and staff structure to bed in an industry-agreed plan.

The council's vote to advocate for a levy, on a proven plan and structure, was to show farming leaders were committed to the cause, Mr Anderson said.

In the past decade, two farmer votes on a levy were not successful.

The more recent one was in 2014. That followed extensive work by the Wool Levy Review Group, a pan-sector group established in 2012 to investigate collective grower investment.

Federated Farmers believed there was widespread recognition among farmers that there was now urgency for the entire sector — farmer through to manufacturer — to "get on the same page"and win the market share the fibre deserved, Mr Anderson said.

Funding to train newcomers to the shearing industry in on the bucket list.
Funding to train newcomers to the shearing industry in on the bucket list.

The council also voted in favour of Federated Farmers advocating for the Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand (Wronz) for additional research and development to be funded for strong wool, and greater transparency on funded projects.