Out-of-work pilots to help fill shortage of heavy machinery operators

Out-of-work pilots are set to lend a helping hand to the country's heavy agriculture industry, as the sector faces a shortage of skilled machinery operators in the wake of COVID-19.

With foreign workers unable to enter the country due to our closed borders, there are grave concerns ahead of the upcoming harvesting season.

The sector relies on highly skilled machinery operators from the Northern Hemisphere who come to New Zealand during the peak work season, but with a shortage of around 200 hundred workers many fear the industry could be set to lose more than $100 million in revenue.

But now, out-of-work pilots could be flying to the rescue of the sector. Andy Pender, medical and welfare director of the New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association (NZALPA) said on Thursday the association had been working for several months with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), the Rural Contractors New Zealand (RCNZ) and other government agencies to match pilt expertise with the immediate needs of the agricultural sector.

"By matching skills and the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) 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 New Zealand’s essential agriculture economy," Pender said.

With the tourism and travel industry hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of pilots have found themselves either furloughed or made redundant. 

Roger Parton, chief executive of RCNZ, said his association worked with NZALPA, which had taken surveys of its members, to identify transferable skills pilots had which with extra training could result in filling some of the industry's gaps.

"Those pilot surveys indicated a significant number who, in addition to considerable flying expertise and qualifications, also held land transport licences class 2 or higher, with specific NZTA category endorsements, and also had previous agricultural large machinery operating and farming experience," Parton said.

The initiative comes as the Government has placed an emphasis on training up Kiwis who have lost their jobs in other industries due to the pandemic to be able to work in the primary sector, where there are thousands of jobs available. 

Industry groups say while in the long-term this is a good idea, it's not practical to get enough people trained up in time for highly skilled roles needed in the upcoming season. They are pushing for skilled workers to be given exemption and allowed into the country, though with the spread of COVID-19 showing no signs of abating around the world, the Government has said that is not likely to happen any time soon.