Not just a labour shortage: agricultural skills in demand

The news of Australia’s agricultural labour shortage crisis due to COVID-19 travel restrictions has made headlines over the last couple of months. But what is often not mentioned is that it is not just a labour shortage plaguing Australia’s farmers, but also a skill shortage.

While picking and packing fruit is more about labour in numbers, there is much work that requires employees to have specific experience or skill sets. This is not just to ensure a high standard of work, but is also a case of safety, with the handling of speciality equipment and machinery requiring workers to have completed certain training prior to operating.

These technical skills are essential for continued work in many areas of the country’s agricultural sector, including grain harvesting and viticulture. So, where have the skills gone, and what can employers do about it?

The skills shortage

The reason agricultural work is so often referred to as “seasonal work” is because it’s exactly that – seasonal. This sees many of the skilled workers with the required training and experience either travelling overseas, or else moving to the areas of Australia where the harvest is occurring.

While this is usually effective, when the travel restrictions were imposed across the country seeing national and state borders closed, there was no way for employers to access those workers with the skill sets they needed. Even now, as talk of border openings are beginning, the news comes too late for many crops, while the borders of Western Australia also remain resolutely closed.

And it’s not just national border closures that are causing a headache for employers, with much talent sourced from overseas. According to WA Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan, the grains industry had relied on labour being flown in from overseas for too long, which has resulted in this vulnerability.

“Most of the grains industry have just kept hoping that we’re going to open up the borders, but that is incredibly unlikely at this stage,” she told Farm Weekly.

“Farmers need to tell us how many people they want, when they want them and outline what the skillsets are, we can then do our best to find people to do that, but they have to accept we won’t be bringing in workers from Europe or from Victoria or New South Wales.”

Loss of overseas skills hurting the wine industry

This skills shortage is also heavily impacting on the country’s wine industry, which CozWine National Manager Ed Milne says relies quite significantly on skilled overseas workers.

“What usually happens is that once completing their Oenology degree in Europe, graduates move from harvest to harvest, so they are often two, three or even four harvests into their career by the time they reach Australia,” he says. “This makes them highly sought after because of their level of experience and ability to perform multiple tasks. It’s a skill set that can be challenging for farmers to replace.”

As a registered Harvest Trail Provider to the Federal government, CozWine is currently working to develop training programs that are easily deployed, effective and meet industry standards to assist the understaffed sector. This will see the provision of pre-employment training through the NSW government subsidised Smart and Skilled program. Once a harvest is completed workers can then go on to undertake more training, seeing them gain qualifications, such as machinery and chemical handling, that will make them sought after candidates in the Australian wine industry.

Though these technical skills can be more challenging to access, there is still key talent around the country who can help farmers and winemakers who are experiencing this skills shortage. As a specialist recruiter for the sector, CozWine has a wide network of talent who can be quickly onboarded into your business to help you manage the harvest and vintage season. Contact us today and have a chat with our team to see how we can assist you.