Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Course aims to up orchard skills

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As the kiwifruit season enters its twilight Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced a $200,000 training package to attract and upskill staff as a winter pruner shortage looms.
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The programme offers a one-day introduction and basic skills course to let job seekers see if they are suited to it. 

They can then participate in a two-week Qualifications Authority training course.

The lower-skilled harvest peak is now well past with some packhouses winding up operations this week. However, demand for pruners is strong and will extend through winter.

The sector is short of skilled labour with 1200 seasonal workers unable to enter NZ as the country went into lockdown.

“The industry is responding to the fact it does need to find workers and we do have Kiwis available and it is with pay rates that are attracting people to the work,” Ardern said.

Indicative figures already show kiwifruit businesses have moved from their historic average of 50% Kiwis on the payroll to about 70% this year.

Ardern spoke to a a number of workers intending to move into winter pruning and acknowledged the huge constraints border controls put on the primary sector, including dairying.

Thousands of seasonal workers from overseas are stuck in NZ well beyond their usual employment period, unable to return home. 

Ardern said Civil Defence funds are being used to house, feed and care for them but that is not a long term strategy and the Government is considering options.

Farmers are also concerned the standed workers are likely to face visa restrictions on being able to return for next season’s work. 

Usually workers are required to have five months back home before being eligible to return here but the covid-19 lockdown has made that unfeasible for many.

Kiwifruit Growers labour co-ordinator Gavin Stagg said the shortage is of skills rather than staff, hence the training emphasis.

“We have had some tourism operators in Rotorua who have had staff laid off who have been able to supply us with them over the picking period and even supply buses to bring the staff over.” 

Typically, it takes a full season for a pruner to get up to speed with potential to earn more than $1500 a week when skilled.

Stagg said demand from locals for work has slowed in the past two weeks but he is still getting 50 inquiries a week. It was as high as 100 earlier in the lockdown.

“The ability of the industry to train on the job is lower this year so we are using the courses to get people introduced to the skills they need.”

This year’s labour campaign has also included greater cross-industry co-operation between forestry, horticulture and tourism using a match-making system.

Ardern said the Government is willing to use its balance sheet to support industries like horticulture train staff.

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