International airline pilots are being retrained to operate harvest machinery as COVID-19 grounds flights and keeps farm workers from where they are needed.
- Border restrictions are keeping experienced farm workers out of WA
- As the grain industry approaches harvest season, it says 1,000 workers are needed
- Stood-down pilots are retraining to operate harvest machinery
Western Australia’s grain growers are on track to produce 14.5 million tonnes this season.
But getting the crop out of the paddock is proving a challenge because strict border restrictions are preventing international and interstate labour from entering the state.
“We surveyed the West Australian grain industry and came up with a shortage of over 1,000 machinery operators,” said agricultural trainer Ley Webster, who typically upskills backpackers and itinerant workers.
This year Ms Webster has trained nine pilots in operating a combine harvester.
All of them have been indefinitely stood down from their airlines and are adapting to a slower pace in a whole new cockpit.
“But it will be fun.”
‘You can’t buy experience’
While the pilots are highly skilled and competent workers, they are still new to the risks and challenges that come with a busy harvest season.
“You could have five people driving these massive machines at pace and none of them have done a harvest before,” Ms Webster said.
“There’s a lot of risk. They’re keen, confident and capable, but you can’t buy experience.”
Ms Webster said WA needed to offer more exemptions for experienced workers to come from interstate.
“We need to open the borders.”
Local workers no solution
Like many states, the WA Government is encouraging locals to take up jobs in agriculture.
But grain producers, anxious to safely have their crops harvested in time, are not relying on locals to tool up.
“I think it may help some farmers to some extent,” grain producer Reece Curwen said.
“But, personally, we have a few experienced operators that were here during seeding that are finding it very hard to get exemptions to get to WA from the eastern states.
“So I think that [providing exemptions] would be a much better option for the Government to head down.”
The Curwen family runs a mixed cropping property in South Sterling near Albany.
Their harvest requires 25 staff over a six-week program; most would traditionally come from Europe, New Zealand and the eastern states.
Mr Curwen said he was not confident they would get the workers in time.
“It’s just incredibly hard to get into this state at the moment, even if you have good reasons or you have approval from someone such as us to come over and help us,” he said.
Anxious time ahead
The Curwens are competing with trucking and logistics companies to attract the few experienced workers available.
“Farmers are reaching peak debt levels now, anxiety levels will increase until the crop is in the shed or at port and there’s certainty on our returns,” Mr Curwen said.
Despite an impressive season, he is not celebrating yet.
Retired heavy haulage drivers are being encouraged to get behind the wheel again.
Loaded road trains are more than 36 metres long, weigh 120 tonnes and can be worth more than $750,000. Driving them takes skill and experience.
David Fyfe, president of the WA Livestock and Road Transport Association, said retirees who wanted more flexible hours would likely get them.
“They will accommodate you,” he said.
“People will say, ‘Well, gee, if you don’t want to do the long days, let’s do some short days or let’s job-share and we’ll get through the task’.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday or on iview.