Andrew Swallow

Don’t expect any easing in migrant visa access to solve farm staff shortages, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor told the first of Dairy NZ’s Farmers’ Forums in April.

Speaking to the Timaru meeting by video link, the minister acknowledged the sector’s staffing challenges but said he would be giving “false hope” if he said there would be greater access to migrants in future.

Instead, he said the sector had to attract young people and that’s why Government was “sorting out” training.

“Ongoing reliance on migrant workers to carry out core chores in our primary sectors is not a very safe or sustainable approach… We’ve got to work harder at attracting and providing career paths.”

‘Pay cheque is important because we’ve all got to make a living and survive but they want to put their time, energy and talent into an industry that feels like it’s making a meaningful difference for the future.’

The minister’s comments came in response to a question from Dairy NZ director Colin Glass who said migrants played a key part in solving staff shortages, particularly in Canterbury and Southland where 24% of dairy staff were on short-term visas but getting those visas was increasingly hard.

“We need more skilled and passionate people, and we need to be able to keep them,” Glass said, reflecting on an annual “churn” of 14%. “We need 5000 new entrants every year just to stand still.”

Giving the forum’s opening address, he reiterated Dairy NZ’s 2017-2025 Dairy Tomorrow strategy and the November-launched Vision is Clear campaign and associated video, though the video failed to play at Timaru.

“Some would say that at the moment the industry is going through a reset… a crisis of confidence… But as part of this reset it’s important that we remember that the future is positive. It’s bright, and in agri and in particular in dairy, we believe the future is as positive as anywhere.”

He refuted claims tourism’s overtaken dairy to be the biggest contributor to New Zealand’s economy and urged farmers to promote their industry.

“No one wakes up in the city thinking how dairy is doing a favourable job for them. We need to tell them… We need to be absolutely proud of what we do, every day.”

Contrary to perception on many farms, media coverage of the sector was 90% positive, he added.

However, attracting and retaining the best people to dairy remained a constant challenge.

NZX head of analytics, Julia Jones, picked up on the self-promotion point in her keynote address, and on staffing, suggesting farmers that don’t like being employers scale-down to a point where they don’t need staff.

As for rural professionals coming on to a farm, welcome those who challenge you and don’t be afraid to fire any that don’t contribute.

“Don’t screw them down on price but do make them show you the value they bring… And start with the accountant.”

Receiving accounts “six months after the event” was not good enough, she said.

Fellow keynote speaker, Guy Ryan of youth empowerment charity Inspiring Stories, said millennials – people born between 1980 and 2000 – “are increasingly choosing purpose over pay cheque” in employment and were expected to change employment 20 to 30 times in their career.

“Pay cheque is important because we’ve all got to make a living and survive but they want to put their time, energy and talent into an industry that feels like it’s making a meaningful difference for the future.”

The dairy sector should ensure young people “know what it feels like to live and work on a farm” well before they start job-seeking and employers should try to understand and meet younger people’s career aspirations better, he said.

Organising a structured progression or experience between several farms might be one approach, he suggested.

“Really thinking, putting yourself in their shoes: how do they finding meaning and purpose in their work; how do they want to develop and grow; what is the autonomy they need to really realise their potential?”


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