Ag struggles to find workers and visas don’t help


Agriculture is still struggling to find the staff it needs. Pay rates for top ag sector graduates jumped 26.2% last financial year, indicative of how agribusinesses – particularly corporates – have been forced to raise the stakes significantly to attract new talent. Sources: Queensland Country Life, Farm Online

Even regions squeezed hard by recent drought seasons can’t get enough machinery mechanics and light engineering skills to meet current demands, let alone cope with a bumper year.

Unskilled workers continue to be in short supply, too, prompting the federal government’s moves to free up some restrictions on guest workers from South Pacific countries to fill harvest season jobs in the horticulture, cane and cotton sectors.

The changes, applauded the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), do not lift the seasonal workers program cap above 12,000, but will allow different industries greater flexibility to employ more help within that quota.

“Grey nomads and backpackers have traditionally been a common feature of the seasonal labour pool for fruit growers, but now they’re increasingly helping fill the labour gap in broadacre cropping areas, too,” said Tractor and Machinery Association executive director Richard Lewis.

“There are plenty of stories across the industry about the value of temporary workers from overseas – unskilled and skilled – filling jobs on farms or with machinery dealers and harvest contractors.”

Ireland in particular, had been a solid source of workers for the machinery industry employed under special arrangements such as the employer-sponsored 457 temporary migration visa.

Mr Lewis said many moved on or returned home after three or four years, but some remained making a valuable contribution to farming communities particularly where employers were otherwise frequently losing staff to nearby mining sector roles.

But while work visas can be extended for skilled machinery technicians, Dubbo-based territory manager with Chesterfield Australia, David Searston, said gaining permanent residency wasn’t a cheap process, especially for applicants from non-English speaking backgrounds, which was not unusual in the machinery game.

The system was also surprisingly inflexible for older workers, no matter how good they were at their job.

Mr Searston has three valued 457 visa employees working at the John Deere dealership’s Coonamble and Warren sites, two from Eastern Europe.

He said without the broad experience and guidance provided by his well qualified 457 staff he could not employ at least two local apprentices.

“We advertised for six months and couldn’t get an Australian to fill a plant mechanic’s job at Coonamble, but these blokes really work – they’d work 24 hours a day if they were asked,” he said.

However, applying for full residency cost about $17,000 to cover multiple application requirement processes.

“That’s not easy money to find for somebody with a young family earning an agricultural diesel mechanic’s wage (typically starting from around $65,000 a year), without any health support from Medicare,” he said.

Even more frustrating, employees over 50 had few chances of achieving permanent residency status.

Polish Masters graduate in science and electromagnetics Leszek Michna arrived at Warren via a John Deere dealership in Ireland’s County Limerick in 2012, yet despite a strong work record and qualifications his various visa conversion attempts have been blocked by immigration authorities because he is now 55.

“His work ethic is unbelievable, his experience includes working on helicopters, planes and lecturing uni students and he wants to stay in Warren,” said Mr Searston, noting few skilled young people who took up to mining sector jobs seemed keen to return home to fixing tractors despite mining employment options now drying up.

Rural job placement specialist Ray Johnson at Agricultural Appointments said while his firm had seen some increased inquiry from people with five to seven years mining sector experience, many rural employers were reluctant to take them back.

“These workers might be quite skilled in operational or logistics roles, but their specific experience and pay hopes don’t necessarily fit with the ag sector any more,” he said.

“The farm machinery industry could probably take quite a few people with mining sector experience, but maybe there’s a fairly big expectation gap to get over first.”