The rural problem where a short-term fix is 'not likely'

Damien O'Connor says incentives to retrain workers from other industries will hopefully stem the shortage.
Damien O'Connor says incentives to retrain workers from other industries will hopefully stem the shortage. Photo credit: Newshub.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says he's "very aware" of the country's shortage of skilled overseas farm workers but says a short-term fix to the problem is "not likely".

Currently there is a hole of around 150 skilled machinery operators in the country, with our closed borders preventing the foreign workforce which normally fills the positions from entering.

Add to that the scores of skilled foreign workers who contribute to other parts of the primary sector and there is a concerning shortage of workers in the industry.

In the dairy sector alone, around 1000 workers are desperately needed for the winter calving season.

O'Connor says Government incentives to retrain workers from other industries - such as hospitality and tourism which have been devastated by COVID-19 - will hopefully stem the shortage but that will take time. 

When asked over the weekend how concerned he was about the worker shortage - particularly of skilled machinery operators - O'Connor told Magic Talk's Rural Exchange it was a big issue.

"[I'm] very aware, very concerned and [it's] not likely that we'll get a short-term solution to this," he told the radio show.

He said while skilled workers were needed in the country, that had to be balanced by health concerns, something that was highlighted by last week's new cases of coronavirus.

"Obviously the events of last week have woken us up to the dangers of every person coming into the country from somewhere else around the world is likely to bring in COVID," O'Connor said.

"We're not going to be letting people into the country unless we absolutely have to."

He said the Government was making every effort to get Kiwis looking for work trained up to fill the necessary positions. 

"There are people out there who drive jet boats, maybe in Queenstown, or buses and they can probably fit in pretty quickly in to driving machines," he said.

"You've got a half-a-million-dollar rig between the tractor and the trailer and even if you're just harvesting you do need responsible people in charge, people who know how to drive. 

"Across the economy there should be people who want to come and do this - it's pretty comfortable compared to driving a tractor when I was a teenager or a young guy. It's a very good set-up but you do need training and we're going to help with that so hopefully we're going to solve that."

He said the Government was leaving "no stone unturned" in trying to fill those positions with New Zealanders willing to make a career change.

"We're living in kind of tricky times and the most secure way for us as an industry across the primary sector is to get keen young Kiwis or older Kiwis, people who are keen to do the work and get re-trained, as quick as we can, and for some that's quite possible."