Marlborough shearing contractor Sarah Higgins has come a long way in the industry in a short time. Now she's helping to promote the industry's new online, learning platform Tahi Ngātahi.
Higgins was introduced to shearing by her mother, Fiona, and began working as wool classer as a holiday job between school and university terms.
She won the Golden Shears in both woolhandling and shearing – a junior title at woolhandling and a novice title with the handpiece.
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After finishing university and a doing a stint of office work, she couldn't wait to get back to the sheds and has been a shearing contractor for four years now.
Higgins is one of only a handful of woman shearers in the country to run their own shearing gang.
She also sits on the executive of the NZ Shearing Contractors Association. She loves the outdoors and can shear a couple of hundred sheep a day.
"I really like working with sheep, and the hard physical work of shearing, and also the mental challenges that come with the job" she said.
"Shearing brings a huge sense of achievement and the people you work with become like a second family".
Higgins has been an enthusiastic early adopter of Tahi Ngātahi, the online learning platform which uses short videos to upskill staff about running a safe and successful wool harvest.
"I like Tahi Ngātahi because I can use it as an introductory tool for staff coming into the woolshed. It saves me time and gives them a proper induction into the industry before they get into the thick of it".
"I think it has really made a big difference to way we do things. It has helped my staff appreciate that they do need to look after themselves and maintain their bodies while they are working. During the season you're mostly just shearing and there's not much time for anything else. But keeping on top of your stretching and flexibility can really help you stay in condition".
To shear properly and safely you've got to look after your mental and physical wellbeing the same way an athlete would said Higgins.
"Some people don't see shearing as a sport, and it's never been promoted like that – but the physical and mental challenge of shearing is exactly like that and you have to treat your body like any athlete would".
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"But not everyone has had that sporting background when they come to shearing so all those things like stretching and warming up are new to them. Tahi Ngātahi teaches them that you've got to look after yourself to stay in the game and have a long career. That's got to be good for anyone like me running a business".
"The video clips are a good idea. They're easy to watch and not too long so they don't take up a lot of people's time. You don't realise how much is on there that you don't know about. It's not just about health and safety, there's information about mental wellbeing too. Tahi Ngātahi is a quick way for people to get up to speed – they just watch a few videos and answer a few questions. Easy".
Keeping workers injury-free in a physically-demanding occupation is a big issue for the industry.
The wool producing sector currently has an ACC work account of over $25 million in new claims liability.
In 2017, there were 755 work-related injuries in wool harvesting, resulting in 9,300 working days lost to the industry.
Tahi Ngātahi aims to reduce common injuries by 30 per cent and prolong careers. To date, over 650 trainees and 50 shearing contractors have signed up.
"Let's face it, you don't really have a business to run if you don't have fit and well-trained staff. If you can get your staff on board with Tahi Ngātahi, then the whole business performs better".
It's also a great tool for farmers she said.
"I've found Tahi Ngātahi really useful when you're discussing with farmers what needs to get done to the sheds in terms of improving facilities and equipment so we can get the best results for them. These things aren't always top of mind for farmers, so the Warrant of Fitness approach helps focus their attention on the things that matter."
Higgins said the industry still has plenty to offer new entrants.
"There's no way I would have travelled to where I have without being in the shearing industry. It's probably one of the biggest attractions. There's not many occupations where you can earn such good money and get jobs overseas so easily".
Higgins is encouraging more farmers and contractors to sign up to Tahi Ngātahi.
"You don't have a business if you don't have healthy staff. Our crew is a real family and we look after each other really well. That's what Tahi Ngātahi's all about – looking after your work family".
Find out more at www.tahingatahi.co.nz.