MORE than 1750 shearers and shed hands have been trained in shearing schools conducted by Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) in the past 12 calendar months.
AWI board member, Don Macdonald, said shearer training was on top of the AWI agenda but felt shearing contractors may not be doing their part by taking on learners.
He was informing 90 visitors at his Mullungeen property, between Wellington and Larras Lee, earlier this month during the inaugural Cumnock and District Commercial Flock Ewe competition in which the Mullungeen flock was awarded the winning place.
"There's no one who you talk to who is not concerned about the state of being able to get shearers and shed hands once you start closing borders," he said.
"It's unfortunate that we need a crisis to wake us up."
Mr Macdonald said the "wake-up" call was not that AWI hadn't been training, but the industry was not talking to each other about training and learners.
"Contractors haven't been taking on learners like they should be, and they're now saying they need to do more in that space," he said.
"There is no silver bullet to this. There have been projects that AWI has funded in terms of alternatives and one currently is a handpiece i prototype which uses laser technology to cut the wool, so it doesn't need combs and cutters being ground.
Mr Macdonald said upgrading shearing sheds with modern facilities the shearing industry is demanding will certainly help.
"Flushing toilets and meal kitchens with clean hot and cold running water are definite necessaries for starters, and redesign of most sheds would also be in order."
He said one common theme from a meeting of eight shearing contractors with AWI and industry representatives before Christmas was the design of woolsheds
"The blueprint for the design of the shed built by Hilton Barrett at Dubbo is now on the AWI website for all to use free," Mr Macdonald said.
Shearing contractors want improved sheds
But Muddy's Quality Shearing contractor, Steven Mudford, Gilgandra, says the industry was using learners.
Currently crutching at Goodooga, six shearers on the 12-stand shed boards are learners.
His team is made up of 40 per cent learners or started off as learners up to four months ago and some are shearing up to 100 head a day.
"And I reckon a lot of contractors are in the same boat," he said.
"There's good opportunities now for learners to work, so the training schools are working," he said.
However, he believes there needs to be two things to improve the learner situation.
"Maybe AWI could invest in qualified counsellors or mentors who could follow-up from the training schools," he said.
""I see a lot of personal and family issues that verge on mental health, but if AWI had some professional people following-up the schools who could take an interest and give encouragement, that would make all the difference."
Mr Mudford also believes farmers need to ask themselves how they could attract young people to work on their properties.
Hilton Barrett of Help'Em Shearing, Dubbo, says the industry can train as many new shearers and shed hands as it likes, but if farmers don't spend money on infrastructure that is efficient, it will be a waste of time and money.
"It's up to woolgrowers to keep these trainees in the industry," Mr Barrett said.
"It's great AWI has invested in trainees, but efficient and safe sheds fit for the professionals working in them is of utmost importance," he said.
"If you think this past year was bad, this next year's going to be worse.
He said sheep numbers just in his business area were going through the roof.
"In a 300 kilometre radius of Wellington sheep numbers are steadily rising.
"We were shearing 700,000 sheep pre-drought and below 350,000 at the end of it.
"But now numbers are going up and we haven't the staff to handle it because they have left the industry."
The money at $4 a sheep was dragging some back, but that's a short-term fix as those who have left the industry were now working in air-conditioned jobs with flushing toilets.
"Another problem is the farmers who are building sheds are using antiquated shed and board designs that are not the most efficient," he said.
"In my shed at Dubbo last week where six shearers were shearing 390 lambs a run, there was one bloke who had been in the shed once before, pressing and penning-up. That's efficiency.
"Pressers and rouseabouts are our next shearers and if you don't keep those learners in the game, we don't stand a chance."