With spring fast approaching, skilled machinery operator shortage 'almost gone past critical' - Federated Farmers

Hundreds of skilled workers are needed.
Hundreds of skilled workers are needed. Photo credit: Getty

With skilled machinery operators still unable to enter New Zealand, tens of millions of dollars' worth of farm production could be at risk, says Federated Farmers.

The farming lobby groups, as well as Rural Contractors New Zealand, has been pushing the Government to make an exception for the workers and allow them into the country despite the closed borders.

But with spring fast approaching and no solution looking likely, Federated Farmers says it could soon be too late for the industry.

"It has almost gone past critical now because we’re on the cusp of spring activity and we need to get these seasonal workers on flights and into quarantine for two weeks," said Chris Lewis, Federated Farmers employment spokesperson.

According to Rural Contractors NZ, 206 skilled machinery operators are urgently needed by 57 contractors.

Lewis said those contractors were needed to service more than 8000 clients in the sector.

"The primary industries can help us pave the way to post-COVID economic recovery but not if crucial cogs in our production systems are hobbled by key gaps in the workforce," Lewis said.

Rural Contractors chief executive Roger Parton estimated there could be a 32 percent downturn in activity if a solution to the labour shortage was not found.

"The effect of that would be the loss of nearly 28 million tonnes of production, with a value in excess of $110 million," Parton said.

The Government has acknowledged the shortage is an issue but has said its priority is training up local workers - many of whom have lost jobs in other sectors due to the pandemic - to fill the gaps.

Industry groups say while that is good in the long run, it's not practical to have people trained up for highly skilled roles in time for the upcoming season.

"You don’t train someone to use a chainsaw, then send them out to bring down tall trees the next week," said Lewis. 

"Newer drivers need to gain experience with tractors on basic tasks in simple country before they can move on to more complex machines. The majority of fatalities in agriculture involve vehicles and the last thing anyone wants is inexperienced vehicle operators put in situations where they end up having an accident."

Federated Farmers said it sent a letter to Immigration Minister Kris Fafoi last week saying if managed entry can't be found for machinery operators, experienced senior dairy staff and a limited number of other skilled technical staff, there was risk of economic, health and safety and animal welfare issues across the primary industries.

"These are extraordinary circumstances and Government sign-off of managed entry of these highly skilled operators, with the quarantine paid for by contracting firms, is crucial," Lewis said.