Full-time jobs lure wool workers

Kate MatthewsCountryman

The sheep shortage and change in season are impacting on shearers and wool classers in the Great Southern.

As the off season gets longer, good shearers earning more than $100,000 are taking a pay cut for other jobs.

In Kojonup, the first shire to have one million sheep, Jury Shearing contractor Lowanna Jury said part of the reason for people leaving the industry was the changing season.

“Traditionally the season would start at the end of July, but with farmers pushing back lambing and mulesing, shearing is starting in late August, ” Mrs Jury said.

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“Shearers, classers and shed hands work from late August or the beginning of September to December and then January to early May and have to save for three to four months when there is no work.”

Even though the season is shorter, Mrs Jury said the work load was still demanding and in the off season people were seeking work interstate or overseas, but would prefer to shear locally.

Former wool classer Gina Bruce, also of Kojonup, and her partner, Shane Maunder, are an example of people who loved working in the industry but have left.

Ms Bruce worked as a wool classer for eight years and is now a shop assistant in a local supermarket.

They left the industry because of the long spell without work and also because Shane had a back injury.

“The money in the sheds is good, but you have to really save for the off season and now in my new job it’s full-time work — I get paid once a week and it’s much easier to budget, ” Ms Bruce said.

Despite missing the mateship of working in the sheds, Ms Bruce doubts the sheep shortage situation will change quickly, especially because of the high price of ewes.

“We were pretty lucky in our team because most of the farmers were sheep people and didn’t reduce their numbers a lot, ” she said.

Broomehill shearing contractor and wool producer Don Boyle said there were not a lot of shearers leaving, but the worrying trend was the number of Merinos in WA.

At the Rabobank Sheep Show and Sale in Katanning last week, it was estimated there were only five million Merino ewes in WA.

“It’s a worrying figure, ” Mr Boyle said.

“Our numbers are down so low that it’s nearly at the point of no return and I believe we really need to keep our ewe numbers up now and start breeding Merinos to sustain our industry.

“And if that’s the case, you don’t need a lot of shearers to cover that amount of sheep.”

A Meat and Livestock Australia and Australian Wool Innovation sheepmeat and wool survey in June said there were 8.7 million ewes in WA with 66 per cent of Merinos to be mated back for Merino lambs.

Regardless of which figure is correct, farmers are being urged to not put everything to terminal sires.

Mr Boyle said it also meant the industry needed to work together to keep trained shearers and staff and encourage new entrants.

He believes multi-skilling is needed to keep the industry on track as well as alternative work on farms during the off season, such as seeding, fencing and tailing.

“It’s not the ideal situation if a person wants to shear, but it will help to keep them in our industry, ” he said.

Another problem facing the industry is poor retention rates after training courses which Australia-wide is 8 per cent.

To combat this, AWI is working on a new campaign to lift the profile of the shearing industry.

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