A farm cadetship programme is one of the suggestions in an action plan launched in Southland to tackle persistent agriculture skills shortages.

"There's stuff going on at national level on the training and retention front, and we'll make use of that. But we can also identify our own solutions and try to make an impact ourselves," Southland Federated Farmers Vice-President Bernadette Hunt said.

Grumbles about workforce gaps kept cropping up at Feds executive meetings, so Hunt decided to pull together a cross sector working group.

Representatives of Federated Farmers, Dairy NZ, Beef+Lamb NZ, Great South, Southland Youth Futures, Primary ITO, Rural Women NZ, Southern Institute of Technology, Ministry of Education, PeopleMAD and Fleur Worker stepped up.

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The group met for the first time in June last year and have got together twice since then.

An action plan has been formulated, and a "heads-up" was sent in early February to Agricultural Minister Damien O'Connor.

"It wasn't to seek government funding at this stage – though we may well pitch for that a bit down the track. But we did want to tell Damien what's going on down here, and to let him know we think our action plan could be a template for other regions, or even scale-able nationwide."

There are four strands to the Southland Primary Sector Workforce Action Plan.

"Stage one is getting youths attracted to the idea of primary sector careers in the first place – so that's 13-14 year-olds at high school, or even earlier," said Hunt.

"Southland Youth Future is already very active in that space, and they've just won Provincial Growth Fund help to expand. They're on board with our group and we're not going to try and duplicate what they're doing, but we can feed support to them so they can be more effective."

The next step is to help young people who have shown an interest to take it further. One opportunity is to help the Gateway progamme already operating in high schools to be even more effective.

"We're talking about things like weekend or holiday working experience, and doing more than just the really light touch stuff. Transport can be hugely problematical for young people, who might not have their licence yet.

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"We can also try to find good farmers willing to take young people on."

The cadetship is the third strand.

"So the young person has dipped their toes in. They like farming, they want to get their first job.

"There's massive retention problems in the first year of people's employment. We have stats for first year retention in the dairy sector and they're just awful and we know it's a problem across the boar," said Hunt.

For smaller farm operations, with staff spread thinly, perhaps across a number of properties, the ability to supervise and work alongside a new entrant was very limited.

Staff were often working on their own, and if it's rolling country - there were all sorts of risks for the inexperienced.

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"Farmers like us recognise the need to invest in training and get new people into the industry but it's an expensive proposition to bring in someone who is largely unproductive and also slows down one of our more experienced people if working alongside them," said Hunt.

"That's where a cadetship programme could help. With a scheme owned by say Telford of SIT, a cadet could spend two days on one farm, two days on another, and day five in formal training on broader skills – riding a quad bike, servicing a tractor, using a chainsaw, crutching a lamb – as well as life skills such as cooking and budgeting.

If the paperwork, pastoral care, mentoring and so on is taken care of, "a farmer is likely to be more than happy to invest in paying them for two days a week," said Hunt

"And if there's a cohort of them, they create a little support network among themselves as well, which takes care of the isolation issues that many of them find hard."

"You also end up with a cohort of employers, who can support each other as well."

Better induction and pastoral care for immigrants working on farms was also needed.

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"The turnover of new immigrants in the first year is higher than it should be, especially given the parameters they come in under and how difficult it is to move. A lot of them are on work visas that tie them to a particular employer but a lot of them struggle. They need better support."

The final strand of the action plan was around retaining staff once they're in, and really that's about supporting farmers to be good employers.

"We want to create some sustainable pastoral networks, and put in place some training for employers too."

Hunt said these are all just ideas at this stage "but I haven't had a single conversation with anybody who has suggested this is the wrong way to go. It's just a matter for refining things to make sure we get it right."

The next step was a phone conference for "anybody and everybody willing to share ideas, knowledge and thoughts".

From that "brain dump", a smaller working group would be formed to translate ideas on paper into action on the ground.

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Southland Federated Farmers Vice-President Bernadette Hunt. Photo / Supplied
Southland Federated Farmers Vice-President Bernadette Hunt. Photo / Supplied

Recruiting an ongoing headache for farmers

• Difficulty recruiting skilled and motivated staff has been the hardy perennial concern pinpointed in each of the 22 six-monthly Farm Confidence Surveys that Federated Farmers has commissioned since 2009.

• In the January 2020 survey, of the nearly 1,500 farmers who responded, 42 per cent said staff recruitment was harder than six months earlier. Farmers with staff gaps in Auckland-Northland and the East Coast of the North Island were particularly frustrated.

• Statistics NZ reports that the unemployment rate fell to 4 per cent in the December 2019 quarter from 4.1 per cent in September.

"It's welcome news that people are finding jobs but another perspective on that is that it also signals there's a smaller pool of available employees – and that can be particularly pronounced in rural areas," said Federated Farmers employment spokesman Chris Lewis.

"Worker availability in the primary sectors is limited, and that is holding farm production back and increasing stress in the provinces. This is where supportive policy settings aimed at increasing our availability of workers, particularly through immigration and efficient processing of temporary migrant visas, becomes important."

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There were issues over 2018/19 with Immigration NZ reducing staff in a bid to cut costs, before realising they needed those staff for efficient processing of immigration applications. They're now increasing their staff levels again but in the interim farmers faced significant delays - two to three months - for processing applications.

Lewis welcomed changes to the immigration system announced last year, including a move to an employer-led work visa process and a simplification of the immigration system. They'll largely be implemented from mid-2020 onwards.

• The Food and Fibre Skills Action Plan (FFSAP) estimates New Zealand's primary sectors will need 49,900 extra workers by 2025 and, significantly, a more than 40 per cent rise in the proportion of staff who have post-school qualifications.

• One bright spot noted by Lewis, who represents Federated Farmers on the FFSAP Working Group, is the big rise in senior secondary school students studying agriculture and horticultural science and agribusiness, from 5,468 in 2012 to 10,152 in 2018.

• There are other sector initiatives underway too. For example, the Federated Farmers Dairy Apprenticeship, run with the Primary ITO, now has 107 apprenticeships underway.

• Discussions are ongoing on the potential to launch a Feds Meat & Wool Apprenticeship scheme.

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