Rural contractors say they will continue to train and recruit more Kiwis but to meet farming requirements next season they need to bring in double the number of skilled machinery operators seen here in 2020/21.

A survey of Rural Contractor NZ members has shown while many recruited more New Zealanders for the season now ending, their lack of experience has resulted in a lot of stress, accidents and insurance claims.

One contractor’s wife said they’d been so short-staffed that herself and her husband had to drive almost full-time for 6-8 weeks. “I had my 3yr old with me a lot of the time in the tractor and believe me it was not pleasant after 5 or 6 hours!!! I was very lucky I had a few people to help share the load.”

Another said all his staff but one this season was a New Zealander. “It has not been easy getting all these new people trained into qualified operators and I have had more machine damage than I care to think about. A number of these people have found it hard with the hours we work and the fact it is a 7 day operation. We were lucky that we were able to get some experienced staff but a high percent were new to our industry.”

One contractor employed some university students to get through but their return to studies left them severely understaffed for the key maize-cropping season. “Employing under-skilled staff has resulted in a huge increase in damage to expensive machinery, farmers’ property and increased insurance claims.”

Other contractors said they were losing experienced managers who had become frustrated in trying to meet farmer expectations with inexperienced staff. Some contactors said they themselves were questioning whether to continue in the sector.

More than one contractor said gaining the skills to drive complex harvest machinery could only be gained in short and busy windows.  “Due to the fact that we can only employ these experienced employees for around 6 months of the year, it makes it impossible to train up NZers to do this position as we do not require these experienced harvest operators for 12 months of the year. This is the nature of our business.”

Another said an idealistic desire to ‘reset’ the contracting industry was extending beyond the travel challenges presented by Covid-19. “We applaud the success of the border restrictions, which have kept New Zealanders safe from the pandemic, but have concerns at them being used to force a solution onto something that, pre-covid, wasn’t a problem.“

Rural Contractors NZ CEO Roger Parton says contractors have shown their willingness to take on Kiwis, some of whom have fitted in well to the rigours of weather-dependent work which can mean seven-day weeks at times.

“We will continue supporting the training of Kiwis, which includes providing machinery and tutors to short courses such as those at the Telford and Taratahi agricultural campuses which teach tractor-driving and other basic skills.

“However, the survey confirms you need a lot of on-the-job practice to cement in even elementary skills and contractors and insurance companies are paying some of those costs.

“Contractors often won’t risk putting someone coming up to speed driving a tractor into the cab of a half million dollar plus combine harvester or sileage machine. That requires someone with a whole different level of skills.”

He says many rural contractors were only barely able to meet farmer demand this season by working unacceptably long hours in machinery as well as trying to supervise inexperienced staff.

“We appear to have been extremely lucky that there have not been any serious accidents but health and safety cannot rely on luck.”

Roger Parton says if rural contractors don’t have skilled staff, many farmers will be left without sufficient feed and tens of millions of dollars of production lost.

Rural Contractors NZ is now working with the Ministry of Primary Industries to develop a request for a Critical Workforce Border Exception.

“We are grateful the Government allowed us to bring in 210 specialist machinery operators for the season just concluding. That helped but we need 400 for 2021/22.”

New Zealanders would continue to be recruited by rural contractors but the numbers were likely to be smaller than 2020/21, in part due to highly competitive labour market.

Roger Parton says some of the skilled machinery operators still here are likely to stay and this is being taken into account in the calculation that 400 more will be needed from spring.