My name is Steve Harrison and I’m an independent director and currently the Vice President of WoolProducers. Together with my wife, Lisa and our daughters, I run an established Merino Stud, Bindawarra, in the Gippsland area of Victoria, where we also have a commercial wool growing business of 9000 sheep as well as 200 breeding cows. We manage this as a single-family unit.
The ongoing shearer shortage continues to plague the Australian wool industry, with nationwide reports of woolgrowers struggling to find shearers and shed hands and getting their sheep shorn on time. We are now six weeks overdue for our current shearing which has meant that I have been shearing as time allows as ewes are close to lambing as well as crutching all sheep on the property.
The issue around attraction and retention of shearers is not new, but has obviously been highlighted by the Covid pandemic, when we couldn’t access wool harvesting staff from New Zealand and internal border restrictions limited mobility of domestic harvesting teams.
Now that international borders are opening, we are still yet to see the influx of shearers from ‘across the ditch’, which may change in coming months, but is certainly not guaranteed.
Both industry and government have several options in play to address labour needs, however these are not translating to an increase in shearer and shed hand numbers.
International workers, outside of New Zealand, may assist with the shortage, however current government overseas workers programs, including the Ag Visa and the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme are of little to no use to the Australian wool industry given certain pastoral care, accommodation and full-time work requirements. Additionally, these arrangements are with countries where there are no sheep so any workers that were engaged through these schemes would require training and more importantly time, to become skilled.
WoolProducers have been lobbying government for a reciprocal visa between Australia and the United Kingdom, as is the case between the UK and NZ for shearers, as this would enable access to a small pool of skilled workers, however this has not been delivered by government.
Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) have invested significantly in shearer and shed hand training over the years and in more recent times have ramped up training across the country to address the current shortfall. Whilst this investment is to be applauded, we are still seeing this massive shortage in our industry, as training alone does not address attraction and retention.
Woolgrowers and shearing contractors also have a role to play in trying to attract young people into our industry, for example Lisa and I have been working to encourage and educate new entrants into the wool harvesting business. Our strategy has been to educate young shearers and shed hands both on our property and encouraging young people to attend other organised learning opportunities. We have held five shearer training weeks, allow young people to work during school holidays to broaden their experience in the agricultural sector and host Agricultural College information sessions. This has led to me holding a position on the Victorian Government’s Shearer Training Committee which has seen me initiate shearer training at the East Gippsland Field Days. Another factor that impacts on retention is the facilities at shearing sheds. We are aware of sheds that still do not have the basic amenities of a flushing toilet or suitable drinking water. This is unacceptable in a workplace in these current times. A fridge and hot water should also be available as well. These are not expensive to install in the current environment.
This shortage is having a number of implications for woolgrowers, including animal welfare and wool quality impacts, but also concerningly I am hearing of a number of anecdotal stories of woolgrowers exiting the industry because of this issue.
What must happen is a multi-pronged approach from wool growers, shearing contractors, AWI and government to develop a relevant and targeted strategy to address attraction and retention of these workers, in order to fix this looming crisis in our industry.