RCNZ feature: A year of challenges

By: Rural Contractors NZ vice-president Helen Slattery


As part of Farm Trader's special Rural Contracting NZ feature, we catch up with RCNZ vice-president Helen Slattery for a look at the industry

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Rural Contractors NZ was pleased agricultural contracting was designated as an essential service through the COVID-19 shutdown. That allowed us to continue to support farmers with the March Level 4 lockdown coming as many contractors were still flat stick with maize production, grass harvesting, sheep dipping, and other tasks that assist farmers with maintaining food supplies.

Many of our RCNZ members around the country are dependent on mostly Irish and English contract recruits to fill out a shortage of skilled machinery operators for the looming season.

With borders closed – and likely to largely remain so for quite some time – Immigration NZ has been encouraging us to redouble our efforts to employ more New Zealanders.

As many of you will be well aware, there’s traditionally been little interest among many Kiwis in jobs in the rural sector. We did a survey of Rural Contractors NZ members in late June after a delegation went to an urgent meeting with agriculture minister Damien O’Connor.

We outlined the growing concern among our members who say without skilled imported staff in place from spring, much expensive machinery will sit idle and farming production will be severely impacted.

The resulting survey, to which nearly half of RCNZ’s 500 members replied within a week, found many could not find enough Kiwis with the necessary skills, thus needing to bring in skilled agricultural machinery operators from overseas.

This would be on top of more than 1100 New Zealanders our members currently employ, including many with the skills to operate large machinery. Our local employment extends to more than 500 New Zealanders recruited in the last year.

Our members have also indicated in the survey that they can provide lesser-skilled jobs for nearly another 250 New Zealanders, including those now taking part in training supported by Rural Contractors NZ.

We’ve worked with the Southern Institute of Technology and now have dozens of people doing courses at the SIT Telford campus. We’re also working on North Island courses.

However, while such six-week courses may provide people with sufficient skills to drive a tractor safely, a big piece of equipment such as a combine harvester or a silage machine needs much more in the way of training and skills development.

That’s why we need urgent approval to bring some skilled overseas operators to work alongside those Kiwis who have similar skills to drive complex machinery. If we can’t get these workers in, there will be major impacts for farming output as well as for contractors.

We’ve said to the minister we will do all we can to employ Kiwis and also accept anyone coming in to meet the shortfall will be in quarantine for two weeks at our expense. The critical thing now is getting numbers confirmed and arrangements underway in time to meet the farming community’s requirements once spring arrives.

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