The rural job with 'damn good money' and an endless summer

There is currently a shortage of around 150 skilled machinery operators in the country.
There is currently a shortage of around 150 skilled machinery operators in the country. Photo credit: Getty

Think of people chasing an endless summer and it's probably surfers or beach bums that come to mind - not tractor drivers. 

But the ability to travel around the world moving from summer to summer and earning "some damn good money" are both perks of the job if you're a skilled machinery operator, according to John Hughes, the former president of Rural Contractors New Zealand (RCNZ).

Hughes will be taking part in a job seekers expo organised by the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT), aimed at helping people who have lost their jobs in other industries to make the move into agriculture.

There is currently a shortage of around 150 skilled machinery operators in the country, according to Hughes, who suggests the role might be a good fit for people like pilots who have lost their job due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

The Agricultural Redeployment Expo will take place on Wednesday in Queenstown and on Thursday in Te Anau.

Penny Simmonds, chief executive of SIT, said the idea behind the expo is to show job seekers in the Queenstown Lakes District and wider Southland area what opportunities exist if they are open minded.

"We envision the event will bring fresh ideas to those communities who’ve been reliant on tourism for many years and now need to look to a different sector to provide employment opportunities," Simmonds said.

The expo comes ahead of the Agricultural Contractor Training programme, which kicks off in mid-June. 

"We're going to see what we can get and hopefully find some people that we can teach the skills through this SIT programme over a six-week period to get them up to a certain level where they can then go into in-work training or be placed and go from there," Hughes told Rural Today on Tuesday.

Although it is expected to attract those formerly working in the tourism or hospitality sectors, it is open for anyone in the region.

"You can't just look at people who have been involved in the hospitality industry. It doesn't matter where they've come from, it actually matters where they want to go."

Traditionally, many of the skilled machinery operators here come from overseas, from places like the UK, but with the borders closed that means there is a shortfall that needs to be filled.

"It seems undervalued in New Zealand," said Hughes. 

"We're only a country of five million and that's not a big base to pull your people from, but there probably needs more focus to be put on what is available in the rural sector for people to work in. Because there's some damn good money to be made, there's some damn good opportunities."

Despite the perception that operating the machinery is easy, Hughes says it takes specialised training. 

"There's a common phrase 'oh, he's a tractor driver'. Well, isn't a thing where someone can just jump in them and in five minutes or even a week or a month learn all the things that they need to learn. Everything's different all the time - the weather's the different, the terrain's different, the machinery's different.

"Everyone knows in the rural sector that it changes not daily, it changes hourly. You've got to have people who are not only safe for themselves but are safe for the people around them."

Hughes says job is essentially a lifestyle choice, and once trained up the opportunities are endless.

"People can see the world once they're skilled in what they're doing. I've had guys, New Zealanders, who were trained and then went overseas so they don't see a winter. And they don't see a winter for as long as they like because they can go to the United States, they can go to Great Britain, Europe and then come here," he said.

"You need to have people who can get in and get good and be not just reliable, they've got to be able to look at it as a life choice really."