Funding boost aims to train up workers to meet urgent seasonal demand in kiwifruit sector

Courses will start next month.
Courses will start next month. Photo credit: Getty

With the kiwifruit industry facing a shortfall in overseas workers, it's hoped a new funding initiative will help quickly train up Kiwis keen to step into the industry. 

The Government announced a further $200,000 investment on Tuesday aimed at getting more New Zealanders into jobs crucial for meeting urgent seasonal demands in the sector.

"Right now the focus for kiwifruit growers is to complete pruning over winter," Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said on Tuesday.

"This is critical for next year’s production. So we’re not wasting any time, these courses will start this month."

It's been estimated that the primary sector will need around 50,000 more people post COVID-19, with migrant workers shut out of the country while borders remain closed.

In last month's Budget, $19.3 million was allocated over four years to attract and retrain people who have lost their jobs in other industries, with the aim of growing the primary sector by 10,000.

But the latest funding comes in a bid to fast-track retraining ahead of winter.

O'Connor said already more New Zealanders had shown an interest in switching industries.

"We know that people have lost their jobs because of COVID-19, and we know there is significant and urgent demand for trained workers in the horticulture sector," he said.

"During lockdown the kiwifruit industry provided a lifeline for a number of displaced workers from industries such as tourism, forestry and hospitality. We want to continue to connect people with jobs in horticulture, and more broadly in the primary industries because we know these sectors will be key to our economic recovery."

According to Horticulture NZ, the seasonal horticultural workforce is normally made up of one-third New Zealanders, one-third Pacific Islanders, who come over specifically for the season, and one-third backpackers.

Indicative figures showed that after borders closed due to the COVID-19 lockdown around 70 percent of workers at kiwifruit businesses were now New Zealanders, with some businesses employing up to 90 percent, O'Connor said. That is compared to around 50 percent last year.

"We know the interest is there, we want to build on that and, in the longer term, retain workers to meet current and future needs." 

The announcement was welcomed by both Horticulture NZ and NZKGI, an advocacy body for kiwifruit growers.

"While the kiwifruit industry still requires RSE [recognised seasonal employer] workers who are skilled reliable workers to compliment and work alongside locals, winter pruning is a great option for those who may have had their jobs displaced by COVID-19," said NZKGI chairman Doug Brown.

"This could also mean a pathway to permanent careers in the kiwifruit industry for employees who show potential."

Competent winter pruners could expect to earn over $30 an hour, he said.