Covid-19 is projected to cause considerable strain on the dairy sector and wider primary industries maintaining its labour force. Industry leaders have been vocal in articulating the challenges of operating without the access to overseas labour and have started responding with fresh calls for people to come and work on the land. But there is a danger that a potential wave of available New Zealand workers will continue to overlook farm work if the industry continues to focus on the work that needs to be done rather than the way people want to do it. Phil Edmonds reports.

 

The reliance on migrant labour became one of the most immediate and visible challenges for any industry as Covid-19 kicked in. The quickly implemented travel restrictions meant those operators who depend on the flow of inbound workers faced the need to think again.

DairyNZ quickly ramped up its campaign to attract new workers, as did the most prolific horticulture sectors, already challenged by workforce scarcity.

Meanwhile industry spokespeople have been actively making impressions on the Government to think carefully about its post-Covid-19 policy response to immigration. In May DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle noted there are about 2500 visas due to expire for migrant staff working on dairy farms. He said DairyNZ estimated that even if all migrant dairy workers in NZ were retained, there could be a shortfall of up to 1000 employees for the coming dairy season.

Of course, there is no prospect of border restrictions being lifted any time soon that would allow migrant workers to come to NZ to fill jobs as they had been accustomed to doing. And even if that was possible, the widely predicted escalation in unemployment means the Government will be very reluctant to allow external workers to come in and fill jobs that could otherwise be taken by New Zealanders freshly out of work.

Immigration NZ signposted this at the beginning of May: “Any decision made in regard to employing migrant labour in the future will need to take into account the wider impacts of Covid-19, including changes to the labour market.”

The agency’s signal to employers was clear. “In the short term, employers should consider alternative solutions.”

Even if pleas made to the Government by DairyNZ, Federated Farmers and others to extend visas to ensure migrant staff can continue working while NZ recruits get onboard and up to speed are successful, the fact remains there will still be a marked, and unanticipated deficit of jobs to fill.

So how well-placed is the industry to capitalise on this opportunity where a pool of NZ workers, who may have lost their job, will be sitting up and considering their options?

Primary Industry Capability Alliance (PICA) chief executive Michelle Glogau says the immediate response from GrowingNZ (the public face of PICA) was to work out how it could assist people who’ve been impacted by Covid-19 to find career opportunities in the primary sectors. The most obvious response was to focus on career changers already located in regions close to the potential jobs, rather than a younger, less experienced cohort of potential workers.

This decision was based on research already conducted over the past year that has enabled industries to focus on those most likely to be conducive to farm work, rather than a potential workforce population with high levels of availability.

Growing NZ has recognised career changers as a target audience, and coincidentally had planned to start a piece of work on determining the type of support needed to be in place to make transitions successful prior to the onset of Covid-19.

“Because of the likely higher uptake of jobs in the primary sector, we’ll have a large source of people moving into the sector that we can track through, “ Glogau said.

“It will further help us understand the important aspects to have in place.”

BRIDGING COURSE

DairyNZ has already understood the need to prepare candidates for working in the dairy sector via it’s GoDairy campaign, with a short introductory course. This is designed to ensure suitability is confirmed from the outset. The farm-ready training course is proposed to include one week online to introduce people to farming and give them an idea of what is involved in the day-to-day aspects of the job, with subsequent face-to-face training to get work ready with a focus on vehicle and machinery safety and animal welfare.

This ‘bridging’ course is a positive step, said Glogau, which is a response to concerns around wasting both employees and employers time if candidates aren’t suitable.

“It’s all very well to hypothetically say someone who has been an airline pilot can transition to the primary sector, but the reality is that is quite a big leap.

“You need to give new entrants every chance of success. You can’t throw people into a rural setting and expect it to just work out.”

The move also reflects the acknowledgement that more sophisticated approaches and understanding are needed into what boosts the allure of jobs. Glogau noted that the last piece of significant workforce modelling done by MPI was in 2014, published as ‘People Powered: Building capabilities to keep primary industries internationally competitive’. The research that went into this has driven the strategies to address the need for a lot more people and a lot more skills but Glogau says “we have since realised we are not so clear about what the patterns are. We need to look at each sector’s workforce and better understand their needs now, and that will change over time. We need to better monitor whether we are succeeding in meeting the skills needed, rather than the roles filled.”

As noted earlier, it isn’t just the dairy industry that is competing for workers due to the projected unavailability of migrant labour. Horticulture’s plight generated at least as many initial headlines, given the seasonal spike in need, coincided with the initial lockdown enforcement.

Like dairy, the sector was quick to try and find solutions to the unanticipated workforce supply gap, and also like dairy, horticulture has realised the need to address the challenge of getting the right fit between worker and employer.

NOT EVERY JOB SUITS EVERYONE

In May Horticulture NZ chief executive Mike Chapman was up front about the industry not necessarily taking comfort from a local wave of potential recruits. He said not every job suits everyone. Successful and enduring employment is a holistic package that meets the needs of both employees and employers. This means factors with job appeal will include location, types of services that surround the place of work, the number of working hours, and the hours of the day that work is carried out.

Chapman also noted that beyond an initial assessment as to whether workers are suitable for the industry, the role of vocational training will need to change. It cannot be an off the shelf pre-Covid programme. “Training needs to be delivered in a time effective way, possibly on the job, and backed up by internet-based resources.” He suggested training needs to be flexible and intermittent depending on the demands of work, but with a goal of getting workers into permanent and enduring careers.”

All this suggests that primary sector leaders have been thinking carefully about more effective, nuanced recruitment strategies and have taken on board recent learnings about more likely sources of candidates.

Notwithstanding the undoubted opportunities that lie ahead to project an attractive work proposition to those NZers in need of a new job, there remains underlying challenges to succeed in that, especially as the primary sector is not the only industry that will be in view to new job seekers.

Prior to the onset of Covid-19, which is only 10 weeks ago, labour force employment data was not the primary sector’s best friend. The quarterly Labour Market Update considers a range in employment indicators that compare industry performances. Some of those indicators reported in the February edition showed agriculture not faring as well as some.

When considering the number of enterprises (firms) in NZ, the survey noted that over the last year most industries had seen strong growth. The fastest increase had been in construction – up 4.7% on the previous year. The notable exceptions to this trend had been agriculture enterprises, which fell about 1%, suggesting that among small business operations, there were fewer opportunities to support employment growth.

In terms of the proportion of the workforce that changes industry each year, stability has been the key finding. In 2018, 14% of the total NZ workforce moved to different industries, which has changed little since the global financial crisis – before which job movement was slightly more fluid. This suggests that workers have been no more likely to consider new industries as sources of work than they have for the past 10 or so years.

Perhaps more concerning is that over 2018, agriculture and forestry experienced a net outflow of its workforce to other industries at a level only exceeded by more typically transient type work – accommodation and food services, and retail trade. In contrast construction stood out for its major net inflow from other industries. Like retail and food services, agriculture relied on filling jobs by employing more people from outside the workforce.

Again, Covid-19 has turned the world upside down, but these longer-term trends illustrate industries where there is a real growth in demand for workers like agriculture are not necessarily coming into this new normal with momentum.

To finish the morbid part of this article, it's also worth reiterating the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) medium to long-term employment outlook to 2028. It still identifies agriculture, forestry and fishing with the lowest average employment growth for any sector. It projects that agriculture and primary (products) processing will experience the weakest employment growth for the 10 years to 2028 (less than 1%, on average).

If someone is thoughtfully considering a career change and looks at their options strategically, and at what the future for different sectors – at an employment level – look like, then it's not the rosiest picture.

Opportunity, and capitalising on it

Lee Astridge: two potential workforce populations to look at.

Lee Astridge, co-founder of business support and recruitment company No.8 HR, says making the most of the opportunity to boost its workforce appeal in the dairy sector will be maximised if it focuses on re-thinking job structures.

“Right now, there are essentially two potential workforce populations to look at. First, the go-getter, entrepreneur, people who are prepared to work really hard and not sleep not much to realise their goal. There will be some of these types of people displaced by the Covid-19 crisis, and we absolutely need to try and capture those people in that career changing phase, particularly as the opportunity just got bigger.

“For them, some of the traditional ways we have captured people – that is to appeal to the fast-tracked career, opportunity to run your own business etc, will still hold true. But these people will come on their own accord.

“But the bigger opportunity remains with the dairy sector really trying to structure jobs to make them attractive to people who aren’t necessarily in that entrepreneurial category. People for whom family time is more important, or don’t want to work a split shift, which doesn’t suit a lot of people.

“We are working with clients who work in various ways, who are being creative, to allow people to work maybe a five or six-hour day. They are doing things like filling the afternoon milking with a drive-in milker. So the opportunity for the dairy sector is re-crafting and redesigning roles to suit people as opposed to try and capitalise on people available and try and fit them into the roles that they already have. This would again just be a stop gap until people find jobs that are available which they would rather do.”

It is clear that innovative thinking to make primary sector jobs look a better option is a must rather than a possible strategy.

Nuffield Scholar and high country sheep and beef farmer Hamish Murray completed his research last year on Future Farm Workplaces, and says he is wary about talking up the opportunity to attract people to agriculture, because unless we change the fundamentals of our approach or working environment we are creating, and able to adapt to encourage people into roles, we won’t succeed.

“It shouldn’t be about how we can attract people into the industry, rather than how can we can make ourselves more attractive.” He says part of this means more of a focus on better using the existing skills people come with, rather than feeling a need to completely retrain someone, which can be off putting. “We are far better looking at how we can accommodate people’s skills, and how they can help our business.”

Astridge says the transferable skills that can be developed on onfarm should be more of a focus, which requires thought because some of the most valuable skills aren’t necessarily visible. “There are lots of things people learn about themselves when they work on a dairy farm. For example, you are being challenged to self-manage a lot of the time to work out how to become productive and efficient. You are learning how to make the working environment work for you.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Astridge cautions that the fresh opportunity could be lost for the dairy industry if we stay in the current mindset. “If we don’t open our eyes to not just capture people because they are desperate but reposition our industry for people to gain experience or thrive in a long term career, then that’s a trick we are going to miss.”