Column for  Southern Rural Life July 2020

By David Kean, President, Rural Contractors NZ

Right now, the rural contracting industry needs around 700 skilled machinery operators for the coming season to support New Zealand farmers. That’s been shown by a survey we did of Rural Contractors NZ members in late June after I led a delegation to an urgent meeting with Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor. We met the Minister to outline 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 133 wanted to bring in skilled agricultural machinery operators from overseas with numbers required totalling 785. However, 86 skilled operators are already in the country with the Covid lockdown. If these workers get visa renewals as essential workers this would reduce the number of those needing to be brought in to 699. This use of overseas workers 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.

Our RCNZ delegation told Minister O’Connor of the mounting concern among contractors that without skilled operators many will hit the wall financially. Contractors made clear at a recent meeting in Gore that they are stressed because they’ve financed millions of dollars of machinery. These are in the yard ready to go but in many cases, there are just not enough Kiwis with the skills to drive them.

The RCNZ supports the Government’s wish to train New Zealanders.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 sileage machine needs much more in the way of training and skills development.

That’s why we need urgent approval to bring in the 700 skilled 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 us contractors. We know our timing isn’t great with the concerns about COVID-19 being present among those Kiwis still returning home. That said, our way out of this economic crisis is through our primary industries and we are key players in that.

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.