Westbury leading the way in primary industries employment

Staffing has become one of the major factors for primary industries in New Zealand, and it is nearing a crisis point.

Westbury Stud General Manager Russell Warwick.
Westbury Stud General Manager Russell Warwick. Picture: Trish Dunell

Like many other primary industries, the thoroughbred breeding sector has found it difficult to attract and retain skilled staff, with the common outcry being meagre wages for long hours.

While there has been plenty of talk around the staffing crisis, prominent thoroughbred nursery Westbury Stud has decided to take action and address the issue.

"The last 12 months to two years it has been difficult acquiring skilled staff," Westbury Stud General Manager Russell Warwick said.

"We are having to train up inexperienced staff, which takes time, and then not retaining them.

"What we are finding is that a lot of people who apply for jobs, as soon as you sit down and tell them they have to work 12 days on and then two days off, and during the (breeding) season they may work 60 to 65 hours a week, they just say it's not for them and the ones that do take the job, sometimes it ends up that it is not attractive to them.

"It is about having a work-life balance and we are recognising that."

While staffing has been a growing issue, Warwick said it has come to a head following COVID-19 border restrictions last year.

"We have always managed to get through because of transient staff or immigrants who are here, but with COVID, I think that was the catalyst last year as we couldn't bring overseas staff in and we didn't have the workforce here and therefore we were in a serious predicament," Warwick said.

"We have been talking about it for two or three months and like always, a lot of people talk about these things, it's another thing actually putting something into action and having a crack."

Warwick, with the support of stud principals Gerry Harvey and Katie Page, will roll out a structure which will allow staff to work days and hours aligned to regular business hours and the equivalent to a five-day working week.

This will help foster a more healthy work-life balance for staff, which has been missing from the industry for so long.

"Our goal will be to offer our staff an 8-8.5 hour day throughout the year and to work on the equivalent of a five-day week," Warwick said.

"The proposed changes will accommodate both full time and part time roles where people can work in either a full time position with designated career paths and opportunities to upskill, or those choosing to work on a part-time basis will be able to enjoy a role with the hours to suit their personal requirements."

Warwick has received overwhelming support following the announcement of the scheme, which he is planning to have in operation at the farm by the start of the breeding season, August 1.

"I spoke with Gerry and Katie, who have both been supportive of what we are doing, and both recognise the issues that the industry has from a staffing perspective, both here and Australia," Warwick said.

"The response from the Facebook post I put up has been overwhelming. It has had more than 36,000 views and all of the feedback has been extremely positive. It gives you the confidence that you are on the right track.

"It has got to unfold, but our view is that we will spend the next two months building up the numbers and quality of staff that we want, with the plan of having it effective come August 1."

While some detractors will argue the Stud's new staffing strategy will increase operating expenditure, Warwick argues that he expects higher productivity and a positive boost in the company's culture as a result of the change.

"It will mean changing routine and changing the way that we do things, but we are open to doing that," he said.

"A lot of people are going to say that it's going to be an added cost to the business, and yes it will be an added cost, but we will see greater productivity and greater efficiencies out of it, and therefore a better value with what we do with our horses and the success we have hopefully."

While the thoroughbred industry has relied on people being attracted to a career in the industry because of their 'love of the horse', Warwick said that is no longer enough, and change needs to be made in order to compete with the plethora of career opportunities on offer for young people.

A couple of years ago Westbury Stud created the Gamechanger Cadetship to try and entice new entrants to the industry, and Warwick said attracting young people is only half the battle, retaining them is a whole other ball game.

"We have got to get on a better footing so that we can attract better people and reward those who work in the industry," Warwick said.

"We are looking at all aspects of it and looking at how we build our workforce and where they come from. From there, how do we train and retain the new entrants who come into the industry over the next four or five years?

"A couple of years ago we started off the Gamechanger cadetship. Changing the hours worked really strengthens those training systems that we put in place.

"What it does now is it gives a greater depth of people looking for those cadetships and ultimately it is going to build the strength of our staff and the culture in the organisation."

Attracting staff to the primary industries is a difficult pursuit and Warwick said all primary industries need to address this and find different avenues to achieve this goal, with Westbury Stud potentially acting as a blueprint.

"We have got to attract those people to our business and I guess that goes for all of the primary industries, whether that be dairy, sheep and beef, or any other sector," Warwick said.

"They have got to look and say 'how do we attract people to our sector?'

"What has been one of the driving factors is that people complain about the pay, and in a lot of instances the pay can be improved, but I think there are businesses out there that are paying well, it's just not paying well for the amount of hours that they have to work.

"The hours are probably the biggest deterrent for a lot of young people. They want to have their social life and their time off, whereas our industry has always been reliant on people being passionate about the horse and understanding that the horse needs caring for seven days a week, and part and parcel of that is they have to work 12 out of every 14 days. The two are no longer compatible and we have got to get smarter.

"Without being an alarmist, I do believe that it is very close to a crisis position for the industry and we have got to stop and turn it around."
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