International students in northern Queensland say they are keen to help ease the labour crisis on farms but warn not enough people know about the job opportunities to draw a workforce large enough to make a difference.

Key points:

  • Labour hirers hope uni students will fill a growing worker shortage in the agriculture sector
  • Students are eager to pick and pack produce but say there is a lack of awareness about the jobs
  • The industry says the government must throw everything at the problem in the weeks ahead

A not-for-profit recruitment agency has dozens of vacant jobs for pickers and packers in Giru, the Burdekin and Bowen.

With more vacancies expected in the weeks ahead, Quality, Innovation, Training and Employment (QITE) harvest trail services manager Keely Van Wensveen believes students are “perfect candidates” to fill the growing void.

“Students took part last year and they turned out to be good workers and farmers had nothing but good things to say about them,” Ms Wensveen said.

“If studying part-time, they might be able to do four to five days a week.

“We have also got a lot of planting roles available now which are only two to three days a week and farmers are happy to accommodate work on weekends.”

Government must plant the seed

During a breakfast for international students at James Cook University (JCU) on Tuesday, more than a dozen students registered for roles through QITE, while others registered their interest.

However, many said if the state and federal governments were looking at students as a solution to the labour shortage, then they needed to address a lack of awareness amongst young people about the opportunities and incentives available.

A man smiles at the camera in front of groups of students sitting.

Amota Ataneka says there is a lack of awareness about the labour shortage among students.(

ABC North Qld: Chloe Chomicki

)

PhD student Amota Ataneka from the South Pacific Islands registered for work after learning that farmers were looking for labourers through the media.

“I think the awareness is not there yet, the reason I know about it is through the news,” he said.

“I don’t think many people know about it.”

Flexibility of work is key

After spending two years in Australia as a working holiday-maker, United States citizen Madison Becker began a master’s degree in marine biology at JCU.

A young woman with long blonde hair smiles at camera in front of group of students in background.

US student Madison Becker is doubtful her peers in Townsville would be able to take on seasonal work.(

ABC North Qld: Chloe Chomicki

)

“There is so much of a shortage, I know that some farmers are a little bit more flexible, desperate in a sense, and want them to come even if it’s only two days or three days.”

Knowing the workload that seasonal work entails, she is doubtful that many students will be able to take it on.

“I don’t know if students would particularly be interested,” Ms Becker said.

“I wouldn’t have time to go and work even one day if it were a full 10-hour shift, not on a weekday, but during the breaks I could see that being the perfect opportunity.”

‘Throw the kitchen sink at it’

While a number of announcements have been made around support payments for relocating people to work in agriculture, Queensland’s fruit and vegetable sector peak body is calling for more awareness campaigns to be conducted.

“We’re at a point now where we need to throw the kitchen sink at this — the Department of Agriculture has estimated a shortfall of 9,000 workers come June,” Growcom policy director Richard Shannon said.

With international students now allowed to work for more than 40 hours per fortnight if they have jobs in agriculture, Mr Shannon said it was time for even more radical measures to be considered.

Domestic student offer needs re-think  

Meanwhile, domestic students who earn $15,000 between November 30, 2020, and December 31 this year can qualify for Youth Allowance payments, if that money has been made in seasonal agricultural work.

But Mr Shannon said that figure needed to be lowered and the deadline extended, to make it a viable option for many students.

“Our feeling is that the $15,000 threshold is too high,” he said.

“We’ve had reports from growers to that effect. We’d love to see that threshold come down.

The office of Social Services Minister Anne Rushton has been contacted for comment. 

Students keen for farm work, but say governments must plant the seed
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