Pilot scheme: planes may be grounded but there’s work on Australia’s farms

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The cabin of a harvester in the middle of a vast wheat field might be a strange place to find an airline pilot at work, but for Andrew King it all makes sense.

King worked as a passenger jet pilot for Hainan Airlines but has been on leave without pay since the pandemic hit in February.

Now several factors have combined to create a surprising opportunity in – literally – a new field. Coronavirus restrictions have reduced the number of backpackers available to help bring in what is promising to be a bumper harvest, and pilots have turned out to have the right set of skills to fill the gap.

Matt Stewart of Whittaker Stewart Harvest and Haulage has hired King to work up and down the east coast through the summer. He says pilots were far from his thoughts until recently.

“Wouldn’t have thought about it in a million years, but we saw that they were a really good fit. If they can fly a plane, I’m sure they can drive a header,” Stewart says.

King found about farming jobs targeting pilots on a Facebook group called Pilots4Harvest2020, where farmers and aviation staff are encouraged to link up.

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‘Logical choice’: Amanda Thomas has set up a Facebook group to link farmers to aviation staff

It was set up by farmer Amanda Thomas, who saw an opportunity in the bleak outlook for the aviation industry.

“It’s the fact that we don’t have the backpackers, and that air travel has shut down, and we’ve got this big crop, so it’s these three things that have come together for a bit of a perfect storm,” Thomas says.

“So I was having a think about what are the areas and industries that we could tap into, and it just seemed like a logical choice.”

King says he is eager for the challenge.

“They’ve recognised the transferability of the skillset of an airline pilot, someone who could operate heavy equipment and learn large amounts of information quickly, and remain proficient.

“I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to the change in scenery. I’m looking forward to the camaraderie with other people doing it.”

The group has more than 800 members as the industry heads into the harvesting season, and Thomas thinks it will keep growing as farmers and pilots bring their friends into the conversation.

“It’s quite New South Wales based, but it’s starting to spread to Victoria and Western Australia, who’ll be in dire need of help soon.”

‘Screaming out for skilled workers’

The wettest winter since 2016 has dragged much of NSW out of drought and led to a 300% year-on-year increase in the winter harvest, which usually includes wheat, barely and canola.

The shortage in skilled labour has affected the entire industry, with a lack of fruit pickers in Western Australia leading the state government to launch a much-mocked advertising campaign aimed at getting young people to help farmers.

Other suggestions to bolster the workforce have included raising the level of the jobseeker payment for those who go to help with the harvest, or offering refugees a path to permanent residency. The government is due to announce incentives in the budget for those on jobseeker or youth allowance to work on farms.

Thomas says years of drought have drained the industry of its workers, even before Covid border restrictions were imposed.

“Because we’ve had the four years of drought, we’ve lost a lot of people to the mining industry, so we’re not getting those high-skilled workers back. I know a lot of our friends all over Victoria and NSW are really screaming out for skilled farm workers.”

Stewart says his company will be working across 15 farms this harvest, working around 60,000 hectares. They start in Queensland and follow the season down the coast, across NSW and into Victoria.

The workload hasn’t put off King, who says he’s looking forward to some regularity.

“I haven’t worked on the same day and the same time in any day for the last 20 years. Irregular shift work is how I would describe what I’ve done before.”

He says flying a plane requires skills and temperament that are well suited to the work.

“Thinking outside the square, decision making, problem solving, getting on with the job with a smile on your face, being able to learn a new skill, which in this case is operating some farm machinery quite quickly, and hopefully doing so without error is all important here.”

‘Such a simple solution’

Fellow pilot and future colleague Matt Shepherd agrees. “Pilots spend a lot of time operating machinery for 10-12 hours a day, that’s kind of their core job. And whether it’s an airplane or a large piece of machinery or an agricultural machine, it’s all the same.

“Our training is around some core systems, hydraulics, pneumatics, pressurisation, electrics and operating computer software. All these things are pretty transferable to a combine harvester, especially the more modern ones.”

Shepherd was working for Tigerair Australia before a restructure in March resulted in all its pilots being made redundant. The airline was “discontinued” by its parent company, Virgin Australia, in August.

After 34 years in the industry, Shepherd found himself looking for a new opportunity.

“I am kind of sick of it, to be honest. It’s the complete uncertainty from one moment to the next. And as soon as this virus popped up – bang – the entire aviation sector is absolutely wiped out, across the planet.”

He says many pilots have ventured into new industries.

“We’ve got some guys who’ve started up their own businesses: tow truck driving, caravan rentals, all these wacky things that they probably never thought they’d be doing.

“For a lot of people, it will be a permanent change. I won’t be one bit surprised.”

Thomas says she has been particularly impressed with the pilots’ networking skills.

“I really like the fact that once one farmer hires a pilot, they bring their friends. And so there’s these little satellite communities growing.”

Shepherd in turn is effusive in his praise for Thomas and the Facebook group.

“The lady who set that up is an absolute genius. I wish the government had as much faith in Australian people as she does, because that is such a simple solution to their problem.

“I hope people are taking up the offers and getting out there and having a go.”

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