Rāngai Mātāmua ki Waitaha | Primary sector

Horopaki | Situation

The Primary Sector is a vital part of Canterbury’s economy and labour market and is at the economic and cultural heart of many of the region’s communities. The sector provides the foundation of food and fibre production and supply, and its strength is a key driver of economic activity for many downstream sectors and businesses. The region has a national and international reputation for producing world class quality food and fibre products, which has been hard won and is a source of pride.

In 2022 the Primary Sector contributed $3,155 million to the region’s GDP, making up 7.1% of the total GDP for Canterbury. The Primary Sector is a major employer with 20,500 filled jobs and accounts for 14% of the sector nationwide in 2022. Of this number there is a high self-employment rate of 31.3% which is just over double the Canterbury average. Within the sector, the top 5 occupations make up 45% of jobs and include; Dairy Cattle Farmer, Mixed Crop and Livestock Farm Worker, Mixed Crop and Livestock Farmer, Dairy Cattle Farm Worker, and Sheep Farmer.

The Primary Sector has some distinct differences to the average Canterbury workforce in a number of areas. It has a higher proportion of older workers with 11.2% of workers being 65+ compared to a region average of 6.5% (as at 2018). We also know that this workforce is significantly more likely to work longer hours than average. In 2018, 41% of this workforce reported working 50 hours or more per week compared to 16.3% for the region as a whole.

Employees within the sector are predominantly male – around 67% of the workforce, a proportion that has remained consistent over the last 20 years. The sector also has a relatively high number of workers (49.4%) with no formal post-secondary school qualification, compared to a regional average of 40.7%.

The Primary sector workforce is a significant sector for migrant workers who help diversify the region and contributenew skills and methodologies to the economy. We know that in early 2023 the 2 highest occupations by number of migrants in Canterbury was Dairy Cattle Farmer and Dairy Cattle Farm Worker. The importance of this migrant labour is further seen in statistics that show that 22% of Primary Sector employees in the region are on work visas compared to a national average in the sector of 17.5%.

Ngā taero | Complications

Since the Canterbury RSLG was formed, we have consistently heard from the sector and regional leaders about the challenges the Primary Sector is experiencing.

The most consistent and widespread challenge we have heard is the sectors difficulty in attracting and retaining an appropriately skilled workforce to meet business needs. Contributing to this is some negative perceptions of the sector, which may be discouraging new workers from entering. Other issues highlighted include: environmental concerns, farming cost-structures, the isolation of working in rural areas, housing shortages, mobility challenges, and the view that the sector does not readily adopt technology or support workers in having a good work-life balance.

From an employer’s perspective, we have heard about the significant impact migration settings, combined with an older retiring workforce, are having on an already tight labour market. There are significant shortages across all areas of the sector, both for the required number of staff, and in specific skill areas. These challenges are exacerbated by competition for labour in other sectors, and the limited pool of short-term/seasonal migrant labour.

An aging workforce poses a key challenge for businesses in the sector, creating an urgent need to develop workforce succession plans to ensure new workers enter the sector at the right time, with the right skills, to fill the gap left by retiring workers.

We have also heard of the impact of ongoing veterinarian shortages as this generates problems for the entire farming industry, heightening the risk of animal welfare incidents and potential risk to the ongoing productivity of the sector.

From an employee perspective, we have heard that there are issues around lack of understanding of career progression within the sector, and the different pathways workers can take to upskill. A compounding issue is sourcing suitable accommodation for workers in some parts of the region.

These challenges attract much attention and distract from an industry which is well positioned for the future. Food will always be in demand, and while there are current tensions, participants in the industry emphasise the satisfaction of a meaningful career growing quality food for a hungry world.

From a sector-wide perspective, we have heard concerns around resilience and the current overall strain on the sector. Alongside the pandemic, there have been several economic and natural events such as recent flooding that have tested the sector’s ability to recover and adapt. This has coincided with the sector’s transition towards environmental best practices, putting further stretch on operations.

Ngā take | Issue summary

Difficulties in attracting and retaining a suitable skilled workforce to meet sector demand.

  • Impact of negative perceptions of the sector and difficulties in attracting young people.
  • Impact of immigration settings on the hiring environment.
  • An ageing and retiring workforce, and the need for succession planning to manage impact.
  • Veterinarian shortage and the bottleneck this can cause in the sector.
  • Need for better awareness of career progression and opportunities within the sector.
  • Importance of a resilient sector, and the strain already felt.
  • Impact and opportunities of changing environmental practices and regulations.

Ngā mahi | Actions

The actions will contribute towards improved labour market outcomes for the Primary Sector. In particular, the actions below can help address some of the key issues the sector faces (see action table for full details):

  1. Future of the workforce
  2. Sector perceptions
  3. Career development support
  4. Workplace diversity
  5. Best practice workplaces