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Clarky's Comment - where will the labour come from?

The last time we had a major national planting effort was in the mid-1990s. We reached nearly 100,000 ha of new planting in 1994. We found the labour then, but we had just come off an unemployment peak of 10.7% in 1992, with unemployment above 6% for the whole of the 1990’s decade. Unemployment is now 4.6% and many sectors are reporting shortages of staff, particularly trades. In the primary sectors there is in excess of 3,000 Filipinos in dairy sheds to help fill the gap. The horticulture sector has an approved immigrant seasonal labour scheme to help fill its needs.

In forestry we have relied mostly on kiwis living in the provincial towns to do the work. There are some Fijian workers, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

During the winter of 2017 PF Olsen managed to complete a modest planting programme across the country but with some difficulty, including moving good crews around the country. Our crews were awesome and responded very well to our zero tolerance to drugs and various initiatives to incentivise safety, attendance and productivity. The 2018 winter planting programme is likely to be at a similar level as 2017 or slightly more. But if we were asked to double that programme in 2019, using only kiwi workers I doubt we could do it, even with higher pay rates and other motivators and incentives. What should be done during 2018 to prepare for large planting programmes in 2019 and beyond?

Silviculture contractors have for years been recruiting by a mix of advertising and word of mouth but report that many young employees these days are not work-ready. Those workers that show the right attitude are mentored and supported until they can make good money on piece rates by planting 700 trees/day. The work is rewarding but physically demanding, often in steep country and in the wind or rain that New Zealand gets during winter. From a fresh start it takes about 5-6 weeks to get “match fit”. That is have both the physical fitness and the technique to make good money. But most do not last more than a few hours or days on the job. Young people have options, and many choose much lower pay for easier work indoors, or even to go or stay on a benefit.

There is no doubt that there is a payback to society and the taxpayer for every young person that can find a career path in forestry work. But to create a meaningful labour force to plant an additional 50,000 ha of trees per annum from those on the benefit would take a massive up-front investment in changing lives and attitudes before forestry skills can even be taught. The investment should be in those organisations with a proven track record in one-on-one support and encouragement to give young people a purpose in life, and a reason to get out of bed each morning and better themselves. Those organisations do exist. Polytechs and independent training organisations can then give some basic skills needed for forestry work over a month or two like basic first aid, nutrition, their rights as workers, and exposure to career paths in forestry beyond planting trees. Contractors would readily employ young staff that want to work and learn the skills required. That could be in forestry or horticulture where the need is also acute.

But we do need to be honest about the prospects of enough kiwi labour for outdoors physical work in this era of low unemployment. The backstop must be immigrant labour. Immigration NZ has so far not made it easy for forestry contractors to recruit from the Pacific Islands. It is time for a discussion on whether that must change.

Whether immigrants or kiwi workers, we also must find ways to give all-year work if we are to avoid the high costs associated with transient workers, turnover and re-training. Contractors employing such workers will get some work outside the winter planting season in forestry but could also usefully contribute in horticulture operations that tend to be in the summer months.

Convincing landowners that planting trees on their pasture land is a good idea is the first challenge. Having the labour to plant them is the second. If those two can be solved the tree stocks will be grown and the targets achieved.