The booming kiwifruit industry which is on track to reach $4 billion in export earnings by 2027 is expected to play a major role in New Zealand's post-Covid economic recovery.
Sector leaders say more than 5000 winter pruners are needed in the Bay of Plenty between now and the end of September and free training courses to get people into jobs have already started.
The Government is pumping up to $200,000 into the scheme which is being led by New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc and the Ministry for Primary Industries.
The initiative coincides with its bold Fit for a Better World Action Plan with a major focus on employing 10,000 more Kiwis in the primary sector workforce over the next four years.
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc chief executive Nikki Johnson said the training courses were a win-win for employees and employers to fast track people into roles in the industry with the opportunity for a long term career.
"The kiwifruit industry is experiencing significant growth in the volumes of fruit exported year-on-year. To meet forecast demand comes the need for a corresponding increase for employees across all facets of the kiwifruit industry."
There were about 10,000 hectares of kiwifruit orchards in the Bay of Plenty and winter pruning which runs from June to September required more than 5000 workers, she said.
Those involved on the ground with the training courses were Toi Ohomai, with help from Southern Cross Horticulture, DMS and independent specialists.
To date, two courses had been developed including a one-day taster to give participants an insight into the kiwifruit industry, which 57 people already attended and a five-day intensive training programme which 26 people attended.
Southern Cross Horticulture head of people and culture Lee Du Preez said the kiwifruit industry was fast-paced with significant growth in demand for labour every year.
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"Courses like the winter pruning course serve to give New Zealanders a taste of what the industry has to offer – both locally and internationally and highlight that kiwifruit is more than just about picking the fruit each season."
Other opportunities within the kiwifruit sector include machinery operation, building and construction, scientific research, accounting and administrative, year-round orchard canopy management tasks, purchasing and logistics among other career pathways, she said.
Te Puke kiwifruit grower Don Heslop applauded the training move "especially within this Covid environment when we can't get the people from overseas we usually rely on".
People were generally paid well which may surprise some, he said.
"It's a much better-paid job than a lot of other industries."
The investment from the Government was also sound.
"It'll pay dividends because the more people out there working, less people you have on unemployment with more taxes being paid. So for them, that's a good investment."
Papamoa kiwifruit grower Rob Thode agreed in part but said in his experience it was historically hard to employ Kiwis as they didn't want to do the work.
"I just think a lot of New Zealanders aren't used to working outside and doing physical labour. I don't know whether attitudes will change or not but these courses certainly sound helpful."
Meanwhile, Toi Ohomai horticulture senior academic Lesley Mochan said there were amazing opportunities and roles available throughout the horticulture industry, from hands-on nursery, to orchard work, post-harvest roles, marketing, research and so on.
"There is definitely a career pathway, as many of our graduates have moved into management roles, or purchased their own properties. It is great for those who like to be outdoors but also there is plenty of work indoors.
"The sector is looking for keen workers, and also qualified staff from certificate-based qualifications to doctorates."
Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said during lockdown the kiwifruit industry provided a lifeline for a number of displaced workers from industries such as tourism, forestry and hospitality.
In the 2020 Budget, $45.3 million was also allocated over four years to boost economic activity and future growth across the horticulture sector to enable accelerated access to new plant varieties and cultivars.
Opportunity on the back doorstep
Otaki Grant who lives at Okere Falls says sometimes there are "awesome opportunities right under your nose but you don't always take them".
Covid-19 had a big impact on her family and when she lost her job in the forestry sector it was time to look at other options.
She secured a seasonal job with Trevelyan's Pack & Cool in Te Puke alongside three of her children who had returned home due to the pandemic.
Grant said none of them had any kiwifruit experience but Covid "forces you to do things you wouldn't really think about".
"It just made me go and sign up for work and next minute it happened. I wanted to help get the kiwifruit harvest get processed as they were desperately short of workers with the borders being closed.
"I also think having the kids there also helped and made it easier to take the step."
She said the industry was on their doorstep with some employers only 15 minutes away.
"Rotorua is primarily forestry and tourism but sometimes you just need to push yourself out of your comfort zone."
All of them enjoyed the work and subsequently Grant decided to branch out further and has just completed the one-day taster course and the five-day intensive training programme - which aims to give participants a deeper insight into the industry.
The free courses focus on winter pruning but Grant said the scientific side of learning about the vines was "fascinating".
"I was very intrigued. The biology side of it is quite in-depth."
Being hands-on in the orchards with fellow trainees and experts had left a good impression with Grant and now she is exploring employment options after being given a list of potential employers.
"We had excellent support from tutors in the classroom and those in the field. They were all amazing."
The pay and the attributes
* Winter pruners can earn up to $30 per hour but most winter pruners work on piece rates which rewards experienced pruners who can work faster and achieve higher rates.
* Winter pruning requires technical skill which must be learned over a longer period.
* But by the completion of the five-day course, participants will have gained a strong start.
* Physical fitness is also an important attribute.
* For more info on upcoming free courses visit NZKGI website.
* The kiwifruit industry is experiencing significant growth in the volumes of fruit exported year-on-year. Growth is forecast to continue to grow with 2018/19 export earnings of $2.6 billion projected to reach $4 billion by 2027.
- Source NZKGI