The right staff: Solving the industry's biggest problem

5 min read
Leading figures in the thoroughbred industry believe the on-going skills and labour shortage represents the greatest threat to the future prosperity of racing and breeding businesses across Australia. So what are the precise problems and what are the solutions? We have spoken to three people with specific interests in ensuring the industry appeals to the next generation of professionals.

A confluence of factors, including changes to visa regulations and a shortage of suitably qualified and motivated Australian candidates have left stud farms and racing stables across Australia in a constant loop of searching for the right staff.

Arrowfield's General Manager Paul Messara is unequivocal in his assessment of the current situation.

"I think the greatest threat to the industry is the labour shortage in the next ten years," he told TDN Aus NZ.

"I think it’s one of the things that is holding a lot of businesses back. There are a lot of businesses in our industry that don’t want to get any bigger because they can't find the people they need to grow."

While pathways into the industry are being created, the numbers are not flowing through. Messara attributes that to a generational shift in thinking as well as competition from other industries.

"In the Hunter Valley in particular, the mines are a major pull on local resources and local talent," he said.

The problem of importing skills

The solution to the shortage has traditionally been to source workers from overseas, but changes to visa regulations have meant that the majority of those who come to Australia are only here on short-term arrangements.

"We recruit from overseas constantly. We’ve got constant stream of people coming through, but they can only come for a six-month period," Messara said.

"By the time they get trained up, they have to go again, because they are on working holiday visas. A lot of the time you spend with them, goes with them."

That has ensured a constant state of flux for those looking for staff.

"We just can not find enough Australians that want to work and are interested in horses."

Houtzen with her strapper

Selling the dream

One of the people working on a solution to the problem is leading industry marketing professional, Lindy Maurice.

She has spent the past 18 months examining the causes behind the labour shortage and she believes a lack of promotion and marketing of equine careers is a crucial area of weakness.

"It's like we are a department store full of a range of career options but the lights are off, the curtains are closed and the door is shut," she said.

"We don’t do a good job marketing ourselves as a career option. When you compare us to other industries, we are so far behind."

Maurice agrees that the diminishing connection with equine life presents a challenge, but that is something which can be overcome by changing perceptions of the industry.

She feels the career opportunities within the industry are significant and align with the broader goals that young people have around pursing their passion.

She remains positive that giving visibility to those opportunities is a key part of the solution.

"We don’t do a good job marketing ourselves as a career option. When you compare us to other industries, we are so far behind." - Lindy Maurice

The market solution to finding better staff

The disconnect between those looking for work and those looking for workers has presented an opportunity for people like Keith Callanan, from Elite Equine Products.

Callanan's company has traditionally provided products for the industry, such as rubber matting, stabling, water walkers and the like.

But he has recently broadened his business to include recruitment management for some of the major stud farms around Australia, providing some relief from the constant search for staff.

"We all know there is a problem with getting good horse staff in Australia," Callanan said.

"To get the right people, to start at 4am in the morning, or do a nightshift and look after a mare, it’s a massive problem in the industry."

Callanan's company provide a screening service for the farms, recruiting staff with specific skills and matching them up with the requirements of the farms.

"I'm filling the market between the two," he said.

"It's a matter of selling the dream to these people. They can build a big career in it. We are filling a void in the market. And sourcing horse-specific people."

"It's a matter of selling the dream to these people. They can build a big career in it. We are filling a void in the market. And sourcing horse-specific people." - Keith Callanan

The majority of the staff that Callanan recruits are from overseas, but he believes the vetting and screening processes ensure that farms get the right people.

"Someone that is unskilled won’t be able to go out the field and catch a horse, you need to have the relevant skills and skillset," he said.

"I won’t look at people unless they have five years' experience. There is no use of finding people who might have two years' experience and say that they fed their cousin's horse, they need to have the right experience."

Callanan is very much invested in playing his part in the solution. His company has been built on providing quality to the industry and that's a standard he intends to stick to.

"If we don’t provide a quality product to the Shane McGraths (Aquis) and the Peter O'Briens (Segenhoe) of the industry, they are not going to come back. We are really thorough in who we pick," he said.

The upside of opportunity

The one thing that resonated across all three people we spoke to was the tremendous upside for those who want to build a career in the thoroughbred industry.

"Any time, if someone walks in the door here who has got some horse sense and is willing to work hard, they can get a job," Messara said.