How can we address the horticulture skills shortage in the Northern Territory?

The inability to recruit horticulture workers is costing Northern Territory growers hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's according to a recent news article which interviewed a Top End mango grower from Tou's Garden who said last year he believed his company lost "at least a third of a million dollars worth of fruit on the ground that could have been picked."

An unstable workforce

The struggle to find a skilled workforce to cultivate, plant, prune and harvest an assortment of crops across the Northern Territory is not a new issue, but there is an increasing mismatch between supply and demand, and produce is going to waste as a result.

As the demand increases, Northern Territory growers are becoming more and more frustrated when it comes to recruiting experienced and reliable workers during the year and especially at harvesting times. Training and induction incurs administration costs, and the reliance on a seasonal influx of backpackers and itinerant workers to harvest mango, melons and other assorted crops makes the workforce unstable. Plus growers tend to find that many workers are ill-suited to working outdoors in extreme tropical conditions.

Investigating committees have researched labour shortage issues extensively in the past and many of these issues, which include social, demographic, residual, cultural and attitudinal views to name a few, are still relevant today. It's clear that labour force planning is critical for the horticulture industry to retain as many current staff members as possible and to encourage more people to enter the industry so that the risk of not having enough workers to harvest in a timely manner is minimised.

Is the Seasonal Worker Program the answer?

Many growers have signed up for the Seasonal Worker Program that allows workers from ten offshore countries to come year after year, thus allowing growers to train and invest in these workers knowing they have the option to return in the coming years.

However, local melon grower, Dave McCormack, has stated that seasonal workers are not an option for all. For small growers, the startup costs and conditions for the Seasonal Workers Program can be prohibitive.

ISACNT advice

The Industry Skills Advisory Council (ISACNT) is committed to increasing workforce stability in the Northern Territory horticulture industry. Our recommendations to attract and retain workers include:

  • Become an employer of choice. Research indicates that workers will research and look for this when job searching.
  • Use social media and other web based platforms to inspire and attract workers.
  • Share business knowledge with your team and find out what motivates them.
  • Invest in training your team; it will provide a good return on investment.
  • Look outside the box!

ISACNT is working with NT Farmers Association assisting with workforce development strategies. If you would like to contribute to the conversation please reach out and connect with ISACNT or your association.