The horticulture industry's labour market is broken, according to Regional Development Minister Shane Jones — and he's hoping a new scheme to match workers with employers will fix it.

Announced at Orangewood packhouse in Kerikeri on Wednesday, the $1.1 million scheme will pay for horticulture career coordinators in six of the country's top fruit-growing regions.

Their task will be to identify local labour demand and supply and work with horticulture firms, schools, training providers and government agencies to channel workers where they are needed — as well as creating pathways to qualifications and careers in the sector.

The money will come from the Provincial Growth Fund, which has so far committed more than $187 million to Northland projects.

Jones said the horticulture industry's labour market wasn't working.

Advertisement

''If it was working we wouldn't have the gross shortages or the squeals of anger from the sector every picking season. Kerikeri has an enormous asset in the form of irrigation and access to a workforce not that far away, in Kaikohe, Moerewa and Kawakawa, but people are not attracted in suitable volumes to these jobs.

"You can't just blame the attitude of my nephs on the couch — the industry has a lot to do to ensure it's paying better money, and that it's offering a pathway to boost the skills of its workforce.''

Jones said the new scheme, which came about after an approach from Horticulture NZ, was a sensible and practical first step to fixing the problems.

A $1.1m scheme aims to encourage people into horticulture careers and qualifications, not just picking and packing. Photo / file
A $1.1m scheme aims to encourage people into horticulture careers and qualifications, not just picking and packing. Photo / file

Orangewood employs about 350 people at the peak of the season and expects to pack 1.8 million trays of mostly gold kiwifruit this year.

Orangewood HR coordinator Amy Donaldson one of the company's main challenges was just getting people to turn up to work.

''Transport is a huge problem. A lot of young people don't have licences or vehicles to get to work so this year we ran an initiative with MSD where we provided three vans and had 30 people turning up for work each day from Kaikohe.''

Donaldson said the new scheme could make horticulture more attractive as a career.

The company had done roadshows, spoken to schools and had a Gateway programme to show potential employees it offered roles in HR, exporting, quality control, laboratory analysis and more.

Advertisement

''It's not just picking and packing,'' she said.

MSD regional labour market manager Jo Littin said the scheme started as a trial in Kerikeri six months ago and was already paying off.

PGF funding would allow it to continue for another 12 months and expand to the Bay of Plenty, Hawke's Bay, upper South Island, Otago and Manawatū.

Horticulture had long struggled to find enough seasonal labour but now it also faced a massive shortfall in middle management, hence the need for a pathway for workers to move into higher jobs. Few people realised an orchard manager could earn a six-figure salary, Littin said.

The scheme also aimed to double the number of horticulture apprentices, currently about 50 a year nationwide.

Economic Development Minister Shane Jones (centre) visits Orangewood's packing shed in Kerikeri to announce a $1.1 million grant to improve employment pathways in horticulture. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Economic Development Minister Shane Jones (centre) visits Orangewood's packing shed in Kerikeri to announce a $1.1 million grant to improve employment pathways in horticulture. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Orangewood workers at the launch included some of Jones' ''nephs''. The Minister said he was pleased to see them because they were often the best avenue for bringing other young people, via their friends and cousins, into the industry.

The company's workforce includes 40 people from Vanuatu hired under the Regional Seasonal Employee Scheme, which was also launched at Orangewood and also by Jones, in an earlier incarnation as Labour's Associate Immigration Minister in 2008.

As of April 30 the PGF had spent $187.7m in Northland out of a national total of $1.77 billion. That does not include Northland's share of nationwide projects such as the Billion Trees Programme.

At more than $5.6 billion in 2017, horticulture is New Zealand's fourth-largest primary industry.

It is a major employer and earner in Northland, especially around Kerikeri and on the Aupōuri Peninsula where an avocado boom is under way.