Click go the shears, boys,
Wide is his blow
And his hand moves quick.
Editorial, The Buloke Times
There is a certain romance about shearing. But, as in so many professions, there is a worldwide shortage of shearers.
If you go back 30 years, there were some 10,000 working shearers. Today, there are 2,000 in the industry.
But the Covid pandemic has done the industry a good turn, inasmuch as it has enabled young people out of a job to do the necessary training for a well-paid occupation, which shearing – while hard work – undoubtedly is.
A South Australian trainer estimates that, whereas in South Australia and Victoria alone a couple of years ago each state would be lucky to have 25 new faces per year, in the past 18 months 209 new shearers have entered the industry.
Despite that, there has been a Joint Memorandum of Understanding between Australian and New Zealand interests. The Australian Wool Innovation body and the country’s largest shearing and wool handling training organization, SCAA, have signed the MoU with New Zealand’s shearing training body, Elite Wool Industry Training NZ.
This will help to accommodate the seasonal cycles, and ensure consistency of work for new entrants. The peak season in Australia is the last few months of the year, which is normally when a contingent of NZ shearers supplements our own. January to March is a quieter time in Australia, and more young shearers can be sent over to New Zealand. In that country, they shear predominantly cross-bred sheep, and many New Zealanders have not shorn merinos.
But veterans believe that incentives are needed to retain those teenagers who leave school and are looking for a well-paid job.
So the newly-formed National Wool Harvesting & Training Advisory Group has identified getting shearers onto the skilled occupation list as a key priority to open up access to the 400 (temporary short stay specialist work) visas and the 482 (temporary skill shortage) visas. These options provide cheaper and more timely access to overseas workers.
Wool Producers Australia is working on getting the Department of Home Affairs to recognize that shearing is a skilled occupation.
Another possibility is to build on the growing relationship with India, which has a domestic sheep population. A labour and skills exchange scheme could be seen as a skills transition arrangement where India could learn from the Australian industry, while also fitting in with the seasonality of the work.
The recent meeting of the Advisory Group was told by the Shearing Contractors of Australia that progress had also been made with the Pacific Australia Mobility scheme for shearers.
It’s expected that the pilot round of shearer training for Pacific Island workers could take place at the Falkiner Memorial Field Station at Conargo in southern NSW as soon as August 2023. Initial training would be for 10-12 workers, with facilities to accommodate 18-20 people at a time. It was considered that the shortage of shearers and others in the sheds is in the hundreds (rather than thousands), so even this lower number will help.
The Advisory Group will meet four times a year, so that the industry can take a co-ordinated approach to labour shortages.
This article appeared in The Buloke Times, 16 May 2023.