Food and fibre | Te whatu rourou
A thriving food and fibre sector is essential to New Zealand’s economy, which is world renowned for producing high-quality, highly sought-after export food and fibre products.
[The food and fibre sector is covered by the agriculture, forestry and fishing ANZSIC code, with sub-industry codes of agriculture; aquaculture; forestry and logging; fishing, hunting and trapping; and agriculture, forestry and fishing support services.]
It’s no secret that Southland Murihiku is a significant contributor to this success, as the region has its own rich history of agricultural excellence that continues to grow and diversify. The sector is the foundation of Southland Murihiku and is ingrained in our regional identity.
From an economic perspective, the sector has the highest share of GDP and highest share of employment across the region – and there is no sign that is about to change. In 2021 it accounted for 9,900 jobs (18% of the region’s employment) and contributed $1,500m to the regional economy (22% of the region’s GDP). There are a further 3,200 meat processing jobs in Southland Murihiku that add value to these primary products, creating higher value products ready for retail and wholesale trade.
A quarter of this workforce is aged 55+ and 10% of the workforce is aged 65+. This trend accelerated significantly between the 2013 and 2018 censuses and will remain an issue for the sector going forward. Employees in the food and fibre sector are more than twice as likely to be self-employed, compared to other sectors within the Southland Murihiku labour market, although this has fallen significantly over recent years as the sector has corporatised.
Food and fibre workers tend to work relatively long hours, with high proportions of people working 50-59 hours (24%) and 60+ hours (23%) per week. Despite such long hours worked, average wage earnings in the sector are low relative to the Southland Murihiku labour market as a whole. Wages in the sector are reflective for employees but will represent an undercount for those that are self-employed who also build up capital in the value of their farm or business.
Employees within the sector are predominantly male – around 67% of the workforce, a proportion that has remained consistent over the last 20 years. The food and fibre sector also has a relatively high number of workers (55%) with no formal post-secondary school qualification, compared to a regional average of 47%.
The continued contribution of Southland Murihiku’s food and fibre sector to the region’s prosperity has been evident from its resilience during the pandemic. However, attracting, retaining and developing a right-sized and appropriately skilled food and fibre workforce is an ongoing problem, at the regional, national and global level. This is worsened by a high degree of cross-sectoral labour competition and an aging workforce. These ongoing difficulties have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the impact on New Zealand’s immigration and border settings.
Across the region
The food and fibre sector has seen a reduction in school leavers entering the workforce. As the sector grows, there are opportunities to connect with school leavers.
The sector has a huge cohort of people aged 65+ who are coming to the end of their working life. Retaining these people for as long as possible, ensuring working conditions adapt to the needs of older workers, and transitioning their skills and knowledge to others is a challenge.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created significant supply chain and logistics complexity. Some resources have been in short supply, while getting goods to market has been problematic amid shipping challenges. Maintaining farm operations and keeping food processing lines running during COVID-19 outbreaks has been, and still is, a concern.
Combined, these complexities have been intensified by other shocks to the economy. An unusually wet 2021 spring followed by a warm and dry 2021/2022 summer and emerging global complexities has, for example, put a huge amount of pressure on the sector in the management of animals, land and supplies.
Employers told us
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 elsewhere, and the global pandemic’s impact on the available pool of short-term migrant labour.
An aging workforce poses a key challenge for businesses in the sector, creating urgent need to develop workforce succession plans so as to ensure new workers enter the sector at the right time, with the right skills, to fill the gap left by retiring workers.
Ongoing vet shortages generate problems for the entire farming industry, impacting animal welfare and ongoing productivity of the sector.
Workers told us
Some food and fibre sector employees work extremely long hours, which affects staff wellbeing and increases the risk of burnout. There are also significant health and safety risks associated with fatigue.
There are large numbers of people in the sector without any formal qualification or skills development pathways. A high prevalence of self-employment also creates challenges for accessing training and career development opportunities. As New Zealand becomes increasingly urbanised, there is a lack of understanding about what careers in the agricultural sector look like and a reluctance by some to work within the sector.
There is also perception challenge for the sector, and at times the region, which discourages new workers from entering. Environmental concerns, the isolation of working in rural areas, housing shortages, mobility challenges, and perceptions that the sector does not readily adopt technology or support workers in having a good work-life balance feed into this.
- How do we attract, retain and develop an appropriately skilled food and fibre workforce?
- How do we manage critical labour and skill shortages in an increasingly competitive environment?
- How do we improve perceptions of the food and fibre sector?
- What is the impact of technological changes: automation, high tech etc. – fewer workers, a more highly skilled workforce or just different skills?
- How do we support increasing the resilience of the labour market to external shocks?