Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) introduced a new programme in June, at its rural campus Telford, to respond quickly to the post-lockdown job market and to help fill employment needs in the rural sector where shortages were predicted. With the first intakes completed and graduates now out job seeking or having secured work, rural contractors are reaping the benefits of being able to employ graduates equipped with skills specifically tailored to meet the requirements of their sector.
Te Anau-based Steve James Contracting came on board with the Rural Contractors Programme in June when SIT contacted them, inviting them to participate in the Te Anau Agricultural Redeployment Expo.
Steve James said “We got into it early, even though we usually employ locals, we could see there would be a staff shortage with overseas workers not coming”.
The contracting company attended the Te Anau event exhibiting four tractors and implements, they also had a strong people presence, with six staff manning their display. He said people at the expo were genuinely interested in finding out about what they did.
His team tried to make sure they spoke to everyone who passed their table, answering questions, and explaining what the role of a rural contractor is all about.
With the extent of COVID-19 job losses affecting both the local population as well as internationals on working holiday visas and work visas, Mr James said they saw people from all walks of life and some of them were in quite desperate situations.
Mr James said as much as possible they always try to fill their vacant positions with local people and they have been successful in employing two new staff who were directly affected by the unemployment fallout from New Zealand’s COVID-19 response, and retrained through the Rural Contractors programme at Telford.
“We have the capacity this season to take on two trainees as we have a good, solid team of skilled, experienced operators that can safely take them under their wing and provide the necessary training”.
“Over the years we’ve employed people who’ve never driven tractors before, you can put less experienced guys with your experienced guys, as long as their attitude is right”.
He’s had good feedback from his two newest staff, about their time on the rural contractors course, they thought it was excellent, he said.
“Doing Telford has given these guys a chance to upskill – they’ve come out with licences, which are quite expensive, and they’re ready to start on-the-job training with our team,” Mr James said.
They’ve also been impressed with the level of communication from Telford, he said they’ve kept in touch by email and phone calls, keeping them updated on how things are progressing.
New employee Robin Peters has come full circle with agriculture. Having started out in farming as a young man, he’s now back working locally with Steve James Contracting after graduating from the 6-week Rural Contractors programme at Telford.
He’s retrained a couple of times throughout his career, being employed in IT, education, the health sector and more recently, in tourism. He’d worked for nearly twelve years with the same company in his Te Anau-based role.
He attended Te Anau’s Ag Redeployment Expo in June and connected with people he’d known previously in farming. For him, he said signing up seemed the logical thing to do.
“I had had some experience with what was going on with my farming background and contractors were looking for jobs (to be filled), so it was a good match in my mind and the course would allow me to update and increase my knowledge”.
Mr Peters said he didn’t have to do the course, having received his job offer prior to going to Telford, but he knew if he updated his skill set he wouldn’t be entering the job as a complete novice and he wanted to be the best he could be for the new role.
Things have certainly changed in farming since the last time he was actively involved in the sector. Mr Peters took the opportunity to increase his knowledge, as well as train for possible job openings in the future.
“There was a considerable difference in size and how things worked compared to what I was working on when I left farming”.
Mr Peters was brought up-to-date in fatigue management, rules around driving tractors on the road and various other current health and safety standards. He said he also took the opportunity to do a logbook course in case he ended up driving trucks.
The most rewarding aspect of Telford was coming out at the end of the course having increased his knowledge and skill set.
“The object was always to get to the point where a contractor would find the skills I had learnt useful... in the immediate future, I have a job for the next 6-7 months so I intend to make the most of that”.
Mr Peters hopes the opportunity to continue on with seasonal work in the rural contracting sector will see him through the next few years.
“I would like to say SIT/Telford, HWR, the contractors, the instructors and the firms that loaned the plant for us to train on, deserve the utmost thanks. It was a great course to be on”.
Telford’s Programme Manager Debbie Rankin said from their perspective, there have been challenges around getting things up and running in a very tight time frame, but also some significant highlights in the creation of the new programme.
A consequence of time restraints meant the set-up for the first cohort didn't provide them with the smoothly-run experience they would usually deliver. She said all groups have been given the opportunity to give formal feedback and this information has been used to continually improve the programme.
Despite those early challenges, Ms Rankin said initiating the programme has gone on to achieve some really positive results, including the enrichment of the educational experience at Telford, and clearly identifying areas where there is still more work to be done.
“We've been able to utilise the rural contractors expertise to add value to our Primary Sector taster camps and Farming Systems programmes and make attendees in these courses aware of opportunities in rural contracting”.
The Rural Contractors course has been formalised into an NZQA approved training scheme so Telford can continue to offer it in the future.
They’ve also recognised many adults may not be able to manage personal situations to attend full- time study but can manage shorter block courses, so providing programmes with flexibility is important.
“A concern continues to be that we have only been able to upskill people with foundation skills in an industry desperate for skilled workers”.
Miss Rankin said the teamwork was outstanding amongst rural contractors, HWR Driver Training, agricultural equipment suppliers, First Aid and Health and Safety trainers, and the wider SIT and Telford teams and it’s been the impetus that has allowed the programme to fly.
“The connections with the wider rural community have been invaluable. We have been really lucky to have John Hughes from Rural Contractors coordinate trainers, and Agricentre support us with equipment - both have been key to the success of the programme”.
Her final comments were in praise of the calibre of the students enrolled in the programme. “While we acknowledge the participants are in a really challenging time, they are any educators
dream class. They are motivated, experienced, interesting people. It has been a pleasure to host them at Telford”.
For more information on courses at Telford, go to: https://www.sit.ac.nz/Telford