Many Australian woolgrowers are questioning their industry bodies over a shortage of shearers.
Millions of levy dollars have been poured into shearer training programs over the years yet this year they are facing a shortage which has pushed up prices and made it difficult to keep to their traditional programs.
Today, the man in charge of shearer training for Australian Wool Innovation, program manager, Wool Harvesting Training and Development, Craig French, answers grower questions on what has gone wrong.
Question: Why is there a shortage of shearers in Australia when the industry has been running shearer training/recruitment programs for many years?
Craig French: Shearing is a great job but it is also physically demanding and requires quite a bit of travel as well. 2021 is a great time to consider it as a career as there is more work available than shearers in the country. COVID has meant New Zealand staff haven't come over to supplement local shearers.
So there is a shortfall and there are other factors increasing the workload.
There has also been an increase in sheep numbers especially in the eastern states, a lot better seasonal conditions, on the back of the worst drought in 100 years, growers kept all older ewes to re-join, over 1.1 million sheep have travelled from WA to NSW, Victoria or Queensland in the past year, the majority of these sheep being females now with lambs on the ground that also need to be shorn.
There is also a major fly wave at present so extra pressure and demand for shearing staff adding to this concern as well.
More lambs are being shorn twice to attract best price per kilo when sold off, lamb feedlots take a number of shearers out of the industry, this is an increasing trend, plus less traditional 12 month shearing so more and more producers shearing at six and eight months.
The big difference compared to a year ago is that New Zealand staff are not in sheds due to pandemic.
Question: Is shearing the physically hardest job in Australian agriculture?
Craig French: There is no doubt that shearing is a physical job, but the best shearers aren't just strong, they are fit and most importantly have the technique and knowledge to shear well. It's certainly a lot tougher than driving a header.
Question: Are younger people not attracted to shearing as a career because it is physically hard, or some other reason like pay?
Craig French: That's a question for the education experts.
But the fact is shearing is not promoted early enough at enough rural high schools, often it is too late to be offered as a career in year 11, we need to be working with careers advisors and alike in Year 8 and 9.
Once the skills have been taught, the emphasis is on technique and mental strength. We are seeing more and more female shearers and with a good attitude & technique comes positive results.
Question: Are people attracted to other jobs in agriculture because the work is not as hard and the pay is as good?
Craig French: I am not sure that is true.
The wages are excellent in the wool harvesting industry, a person without any qualifications or experience can earn $1k gross per week, as a wool handler and as a shearer of course paid per head, but really shearing 150 sheep per day returns around $500.
I back shearing as a rewarding career.
Question: Are there any equipment or work practice upgrades in the pipeline which will make the job easier in the near future?
Craig French: AWI is always working with other organisations to improve the tools used and the facilities that sheep are shorn in.
There has been a lot of work on shed design, improving the catch and drag for shearers, less injuries with better designed sheds and yes we will continue to work on improving the wool harvesting area where we can.
Question: Is the 'shearer shortage' just a short-term hiccup during the pandemic and will fix itself once New Zealanders are able to cross the ditch again?
Craig French: I think the shortage is mostly in NSW and will return to more normality in the winter, we will see more NZ staff come over as the year moves on, plus there is a lot of new entrants and learners in sheds now, so in another 3-4 months these shearers and wool handlers will be more efficient and productive in their roles.
Question: What can woolgrowers do to make shearing 'more attractive' to new recruits?
Craig French: Wool growers can improve the facilities and accommodation for the wool harvesting teams. Running water, toilets and more efficient catch and drag would help new recruits. We need young people to take up the profession and be a sustainable life long career.
I encourage wool growers to communicate with their service provider and ask them what can we do to improve our facilities, lets listen to the staff working in these sheds, surely they are the people who know exactly what needs to improve on a grower by grower basis.
Growers can encourage their service provider to put a learner or two on, give the new entrants a go. This has been a problem and to be honest without the NZ staff here, there are more learners on stands. This has created good opportunities, let's hope these learner shearers are repaid with keeping that stand, even when the borders re-open.
Question: Do more growers need to consider upgrading the shearers' workplace, the shed, to attract more people to shearing? Has that been identified as a problem?
Craig French: Yes it has been identified as a concern. AWI is working on improving shed design and there is more on this on our website wool.com
Question: Are more shearing training programs to the best long-term remedy to the shortage issues?
Craig French: AWI will continue to train at novice level, improver level & it is important we continue to deliver "In Shed Training". You can run as many schools as you like, but this needs to be followed up on a regular basis with an accredited AWI trainer on the job with a range of sheep, improving the skills and ability of the shearers and wool handlers. This ensures good retention for this industry, which is what we need.