A growing need for workers

Horticulture is growing. A paper recently released by the Ministry for Primary Industries predicts the industry will need an extra 7800 workers by 2025. Many will require higher skills and more qualifications. In Central Otago's orchards and vineyards, more skilled hands cannot come quickly enough. Leith Huffadine reports.

Tim Jones
Tim Jones
The horticulture industry will need thousands of extra workers in the next decade, a government department report forecasts.

But Central Otago fruit growers say they need staff now.

The region's $3.65 million industry is dominated by apples, winegrowing and kiwifruit, making up 70% of total horticultural exports, but is struggling to attract new blood.

Fruit growers and orchard workers say the region's low unemployment rates have led to a reliance on seasonal and foreign workers. They also limit the ability to attract new people to the industry and to develop experience and leadership.

The Ministry for Primary Industries outlined expected worker requirements by 2025 in its report ''People Powered: Building capabilities to keep New Zealand's primary industries internationally competitive''.

Summerfruit New Zealand vice-chairman Tim Jones said most people would suggest there was a shortage of young, qualified people in the area now.

''Look at most orchards in Central Otago.

''Most have a lot of people who have come to Central Otago semi-retired and picked up work and they are not around long term.

''How do we attract young people into our industry?''The reality seems to be that horticulture is not painted in a good light for careers ... I think most people would suggest there is a shortage of young, qualified people in the area.''

Mr Jones, who is also manager of 45 South Orchard, said horticulture was not pushed as a science to young people, and doing so was a responsibility held by the industry and schools.

''It would be great to see kids come out of school and give horticulture a shot as a career.''

There was a perception horticulture was ''the lowest common denominator'', and that needed to change, he said.

Huge growth was happening in the industry, with lots of opportunities.

Otago Polytechnic Central Otago campus principal lecturer Alex Huffadine said qualified workers were already in demand.

''At the moment for us, any qualified student we can place. Every single one.

''There is definitely a demand out there.''

The polytechnic had the capacity to train more students and the ability to place more in work, he said.

''We could take five to 10 times the people we are putting into the market.''

Not only were jobs available for graduates ''tomorrow'', but their skills were also highly transferable to other industries, he said.

Webb's Family Orchard owner-operator Simon Webb said the industry lacked experience and future leaders.

''If there is expansion there will not be a lot of people sitting there ready to step up, and it takes time to develop those people.

''We need to start developing them now.''

While the industry needed more people with qualifications to take up leadership roles, it still needed workers for carrying out day-to-day work, he said.

A large portion of the workforce that horticulture in Central Otago relied on was not qualified, due to the seasonal nature of work and short-term employment.

Seasonal Solutions chief executive Greg Watson said backpackers made up more than half the region's seasonal workforce.

The business, an orchardist and viticulturist-owned co-operative, was set up to provide its members with casual and permanent workers.

''It is scary that we are relying on a group of people to travel to this part of the world to pick our fruit.

''Our labour source has to be sustainable. Where from? New Zealand and RSE [Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme, an initiative bringing workers from the Pacific to New Zealand] workers.

''They would be two key sustainable resources wecan rely on,'' Mr Watson said.

RSE workers, while not having a qualification, had a certain level of skill associated with returning to the job for several years, he said.

Fruit growers in the region said RSE workers were important to Central Otago because the region had low unemployment rates, and were needed to fill roles on orchards.

Mr Webb said although he only had four RSE workers who returned each year to his orchard, near Cromwell, they were ''worth their weight in gold''.

Having return or permanent staff also saved money by not having to train new seasonal workers, he said.

He suggested finding staff might be a location issue.

His orchard had no problems with staff numbers, which he attributed to his proximity to Wanaka and Queenstown.

Central Otago District Council economic development officer Warwick Hawker said the council would examine labour needs.

Labour was one of the key issues in the area and the council was planning to update a survey on the region's labour requirements soon.

''It was last done in 2005 and [this] is going to be a refreshed look at labour requirements for key sectors of the Central Otago economy.''

- leith.huffadine@odt.co.nz

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