We'd love to employ New Zealanders, but we're losing the battle to attract young people and we need migrant workers, writes Federated Farmers dairy chairman Chris Lewis.

Government consultation rounds can seem about as frequent as changes in the weather but one that Federated Farmers is taking particularly seriously concerns migrant workers.

Last December Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway put out a discussion paper "A new approach to employer assisted work visas and regional workforce planning".

We said straight away that some of the proposals, including streamlining of procedures and new regional skills shortage lists, would be very useful, as was the acknowledgement that some employers face significant difficulty when they can't find suitable New Zealand workers to hire and train.

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Subsequently, the Federated Farmers January Mid-Season Farm Confidence Survey underlined a trend that has worsened in just about every one of our bi-annual surveys since 2010.

Read more from Federated Farmers here.

All farms – dairy, arable and meat/wool - continue to have difficulty recruiting skilled and motivated staff.

Just on 42 per cent of the 1400 farmers who filled in our questionnaire said the situation was worse than six months earlier.

Farmers are confronted with all sorts of challenges and potential changes – climate change, talk of a capital gains tax and new environment taxes, lab-grown meat and milk alternatives to name a few.

They're all important but in terms of an everyday, grass roots headache, one that can hinder production and really impinge on a farmer's mental and physical health, then sustained gaps in your workforce tops the list.

Federated Farmers Dairy Chairperson, Chris Lewis. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers Dairy Chairperson, Chris Lewis. Photo / Supplied

No question – farmers would rather employ fellow New Zealanders.

We started a dairy apprenticeship scheme to foster talent, and we're looking at expanding that to other farming sectors.

But we've got very low unemployment in many rural areas, and we're in a battle with roading, construction and infrastructure industries for the kinds of young people that have long been the agriculture workforce's 'new blood' – young men and women who like the outdoors, working with their hands and growing/raising quality food and fibre.

With the farmhouse accommodation many of us offer, great schools and close-knit rural communities, we're still getting our share of skilled workers, often with families.

But we're losing the battle for younger people, who tend to be swayed by the social life, shops, McDonald's and bustle of towns and cities.

Another blow was the loss of the Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre.

Federated Farmers is working with other agencies to find a more workable tertiary training set-up for primary sectors, but we've lost that workforce inflow in the meantime.

And so we must have migrant workers to plug workforce gaps in the industries that still earn the lion's share of New Zealand's export receipts.

We seem to be getting through to the Government with our message that the broad application of current rules that limit visas to three consecutive 12-month periods, followed by an enforced stand-down of a year when they must return overseas, is crazy.

Just when we've got workers into the rhythm of NZ farm life and lifted their skills, they have to leave – and more often than not they're gleefully snapped up by farmers in Australia and Canada.

The Minister has also signalled the possibility of reversing restrictions on migrant workers' families coming with them to New Zealand. Excellent!

That will mean more settled and contented workers, and a boost to the schools and economies of rural districts.

We also applaud the talk of making skills shortage lists regional. We can see that there are problems with high numbers of immigrants in Auckland and Tauranga, where we can't build houses and infrastructure fast enough.

But the same issues don't exist in places such as Balclutha, Taihape and Ashburton.

Another proposal is requiring employers who want to employ migrants to apply for 12-month accreditation instead of having to provide details with every application.

To really cut back on the time-consuming bureaucracy and paperwork, why not 36-month accreditation?

As we prepare our submission to meet the March 18 deadline, we're debating the implications of the proposed sector agreements for industries that use a lot of low-skilled employees from overseas.

We're also working out ways to underline to the Minister how necessary it is to show some flexibility over the requirement for ANZSCO Levels 1, 2, and 3, which rules out the majority of farm work job roles from the skills shortage list.

In short, we welcome the Government's willingness to talk – and we'll be taking the opportunity.