Thursday, December 7, 2023

From cockpit to cab

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Out-of-work New Zealand pilots are swapping airplanes for tractors to help solve widespread worker shortages agriculture contractors are experiencing because of covid-19 border closures.
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Pilots that are either on furlough or who have been made redundant in the wake of covid-19 are being retrained to drive agricultural machinery.

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association (NZALPA) medical and welfare director Andy Pender said it had been working for several months with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), the Rural Contractors New Zealand (RCNZ), other government departments and training providers to match pilot expertise with the immediate needs of the agricultural sector.

“By matching skills and the New Zealand Transport Agency licences pilots already hold, we’ve found almost 200 opportunities for pilots to put their skills to use with land-based machinery and do their bit for NZ’s essential agriculture economy,” Pender said.

When covid-19 rolled through earlier this year, Pender was captaining a Boeing 737.

He is currently working as a builder’s labourer at a site in Christchurch but is about to be retrained as a tractor driver.

He said there was a “lightbulb moment” with NZALPA where they realised they had transferrable skills for rural contracting.

“Since then, it really has snowballed,” he said.

A NZALPA internal survey a significant number of its members held land transport licences class 2 or higher, with specific NZTA category endorsements, and also had previous agricultural large machinery operating and like Pender, farming experience.

“Most of us have a pair of redbands,” he said.

“These are people that are redundant, some are furloughed that have a want and a desire to upskill as best they can to get the appropriate licence to drive farm machinery and take advantage of these opportunities in the rural sector.”

He said his story could be repeated one hundred times over with other pilots in a similar position.

“Our people have gotten wind of these opportunities and are ready to roll their sleeves up and jump right in.”

Pender said while none of the pilots claim to be experts, the two industries did contain similarities as both worked in highly challenging environments.

“If you make stuff up, there’s big consequences in the aviation game and I think that can be said over and over again in the farming game. We are talking about thousands of dollars’ worth of crops and of machinery. We are used to that,” he said.

“We are used to handling an up to 200 tonne piece of machinery that’s used to travelling at Mach 0.8.”

This required people used to the responsibility of handling large machinery who are used to performing at a high level to get the job done, he said.

“This sounds like your classic farming contractor, if ever I heard one.”

RCNZ chief executive Roger Parton said both occupations have high focuses on technology and safety, required a high work ethic, had varied hours and had to be drug free.

“All of those things are things that match with airline pilots,” he said.

“We are seeing what we can match, if we can fill 10-20 slots, that’s 10-20 slots better off than we started.”

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