5 minutes with Linda Sissons

CEO, Primary ITO

What is the overall goal of Primary ITO and how can people get involved?

Primary ITO is about developing people on the job and, through them, growing New Zealand. The primary sector is crucially important to New Zealand and our part is in ensuring people can develop the skills they need over the course of their careers in what is a very dynamic and changing sector.

We’re fortunate to have a network of training advisors throughout New Zealand specialising in the different industries. So, a dairy farm can get the specific advice it needs, or likewise a kiwifruit orchard or a sheep and beef farm. Our people are in the communities providing support to business and are available to visit the workplace.

New Zealand’s economic growth recently hit a two-year-high on the back of a strong performance from the agricultural sector. What is the mood like among primary industry training at present?

A big opportunity for the primary sector is the estimated 50,000 new qualified people who will be needed by 2025. Clearly that is an enormous opportunity and challenge for us in primary industry training. At Primary ITO, we’re fortunate in that we’re industry-owned and have a stakeholder council and industry partnership groups from 14 different sub-sectors from wool, to equine, to pipfruit and sports turf. They are constantly guiding us to facilitate the training they need for their specific industries. Each industry is the same only in that they all want talented people.

As the country’s largest provider of primary sector industry training, how is Primary ITO tracking overall?

We’re particularly proud of our recent efforts to align our training structure more closely with the industries we’re working with. We’d previously worked on a more regional basis but now have dairy, horticulture, meat and fibre and other groupings, which means our people have a closer understanding and relationship with the specific sectors.

The scale of what we’re trying to achieve is substantial. Last year, we had 28,205 people training with us across more than 290 qualifications and working with 160 training providers. As a comparison to universities and polytechnics, only Auckland University has significantly more enrolments than us.

Our sector is always changing and we’re innovating to ensure that the primary industries get the skills they need and that people can grow in the careers they want for the benefit of all New Zealand. Some of the things we’re doing include a greater focus on apprenticeships with the new Horticulture Apprenticeship and Dairy Apprenticeship, which we developed with Federated Farmers. We’re very optimistic for the future.

What do you think could help foster education across our primary sector and how can New Zealand support this?

We’re particularly heartened to see the comments from Education Minister Chris Hipkins that New Zealand should be a world leader in primary sector vocational training. We couldn’t agree more. We do think an increase in funding is required for both workplace trainees and apprentices in the primary sector. We have unique challenges in providing support to a dispersed and rural group of people and a funding lift would mean better support for industry trainees and apprentices, including more pastoral care and higher quality off-job learning opportunities. In turn, industry will have better-trained, more highly skilled and more engaged employees.

Another action we need to see is a focus on encouraging young, talented New Zealanders into careers in the primary sector – opening the gate wider, as it were. We think schools could do more to help there, as well as employers, us and
others working in the sector.

Every day I’m talking to people in our industry and they’re all telling me that they need smart, capable, motivated people and they’re more than willing to invest in training them. The Dairy Apprenticeship is a good example. We’re working on recruiting apprentices and Federated Farmers is identifying willing employers who are signing up to a farm charter, which underpins quality on-the-job training, career development and support for the apprentice along with the best goals for sustainable dairying.

The New Zealand Government wants to double local primary sector exports by 2025 and the industry needs 50,000 more skilled people to achieve this goal. How well is the industry performing against this target?

Right now, at Primary ITO we’re working on scans of the primary sector workforce across approximately 15 sub-sectors. Fifty thousand is a big number but clearly dairy farming needs different people to dairy processing, or wool harvesting, seafood processing, horticulture, viticulture, or landscape gardening.

There’s a lot of work to do to recruit school leavers into industry and get them training. At the moment only 4 percent of school leavers are going straight into on-the-job training, so there’s a job to do in showcasing the benefits of earning while you learn. Given the environment of high employment, there’s also a great opportunity to introduce people to on-the-job training.

A big part of meeting the target will be improving the attractiveness of the primary industries as a career destination. We’re convinced these industries offer fantastic opportunities and showcasing these to potential employees then ensuring their expectations are met will be key.

Fast-forward to 2025 – what are some of the key trends across our sector and how can New Zealand farmers and growers prepare themselves now?

For many years, the primary sector might have been somewhere for people to gravitate and stay without formal learning requirements. But the future of the sector is being driven by innovation and not just scale. The employees – and trainees – of now and into the future will be practical but also with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills and other business and “soft” skills. Investing in people now means they will develop transferable skills as technologies, farming and growing practices change.

We’re developing and marketing micro-credentials – sometimes called nano-degrees. These are bite-sized pieces of learning targeted specifically at an industry need without requiring a longer qualification. Biosecurity is one great example. Mycoplasma bovis is major threat to both beef and dairy farming. Being able to pick up skills quickly to respond to threats like this will be invaluable to farmers and growers. At the other end of the spectrum, full apprenticeships and diploma programmes are increasingly providing the primary sector with the full range of skills needed for a career.

The demand for skilled workers also means employers will need to cast their nets wider. Over 85 percent of the population live in urban areas, so more needs to be done to attract city-dwellers to the country, keep people in the regions and encourage others to return to their communities and build a career.

To learn more about Primary ITO and their courses, visit www.primaryito.ac.nz or call 0800 20 80 20.