Facing severe labour shortage, horticulture sector pins its hopes on students

As the horticulture sector continues to face a worker shortage due to the country's closed borders, many are pinning their hopes on students stepping in to lend a hand.

The Pick This, Pick That campaign is the fruit of a partnership between Student Job Search (SJS) and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and connects seasonal employers across the country with students looking for job opportunities. 

The country's horticulture industry relies heavily on foreign seasonal workers, but with COVID-19 closing our borders the sector is short thousands of workers this season.

And though there are many jobs ripe for the picking - particularly at a time when many people have lost their employment due to the coronavirus pandemic - the industry is still struggling to fill the positions ahead of the upcoming season.

Last month growers warned that some fruit and vegetables may be left to rot due to the labour shortage.

But now, it is hoped students might be able to step in and fill some of the gaps.

"There's a lot of them [ students] that are looking for work and extra funds would really help them as they go through their studies," SJS chief executive Suzanne Boyd told Dominic George on Magic Talk's Rural Today on Tuesday.

She said it made "good sense" for MPI to approach SJS, given their central role in helping students find part-time or holiday work. Students were also more aware than ever of seasonal work opportunities, she said. 

"We know there's an appetite for it and when we tested this message with students it resonated really well.

"It is something that is perfectly timed, and indeed with the event of COVID and a number of students going back home there is a higher likelihood that students will be in the regions where previously they may not have been or may not have returned home, and so they're definitely available to work."

Students can apply for work either through the Student Job Search website or the Work The Seasons website.

"The students don't need to necessarily just get involved at peak times," said Boyd. 

"We for example in the Hawke's Bay know that the institution up there has 10,000 students, 5000 of which have 20-30 hours a week that they have available for work. 

"So when there's a need for people with skills, those students could actually have them spending their time throughout the year learning, not just the fundamental picking-type skills. 

"If we work together with industry and indeed local bodies - councils and the like - then I think we could really make a big dent in this issue."

The campaign is similar to another recently launched online job service, Pick Tiki. 

That was dreamed up by two university graduates and also links young New Zealanders with fruit growers around the country.