29 May 2024

Lack of wool education spells trouble for farmers, experts warn

7:41 pm on 29 May 2024
Wool grading

The lack of tertiary education is a huge concern for the sector. Photo: Tessa Charles

New Zealand once lauded as living off the sheep's back, known for producing wool carpets and more recently high-end merino products like Icebreaker and Smartwool has dropped the ball when it comes to wool education, according to many in the sector.

Tertiary wool papers once offered by Massey and Lincoln Universities are no more, and the only two tutors teaching wool at the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) are about to leave - one is retiring after more than 40 years, the other is leaving for another role.

SIT said while it would replace them - at this stage, it was up in the air as to whether semester two of its Certificate in Wool Technology and Classing would go ahead.

The lack of tertiary education is a huge concern for the sector.

G Schneider NZ wool-buyer and exporter Helen Cameron said the lack of knowledge coming through the sector was significant.

It beggared belief that New Zealand's tertiary sector would let wool education and wool classing flounder because classing wool and the quality standards it guarantees was vital for the country's international reputation, she said.

"We need to ensure that there is a process where we are having younger people coming through, so that within the time period they can be taught by those people with plenty of experience because it is very much a hands-on job, (as well as tertiary study) being taught by those actually doing it is important.

"And farmers are the ones that will suffer ultimately because their product won't be sorted to a standard that is required and therefore they won't be able to get the premiums that are available" she said.

New Zealand Wool Classers' Association registrar Marg Forde said it came down to "how we in New Zealand value, or don't value, wool anymore".

"We'd (NZWCA) like to secure wool as a tertiary education subject. We think it's really vital that that ability to teach wool, science and wool technology, remains in New Zealand and if we're not careful, it won't. There's a there's a lot of knowledge being lost."

At the start of this year, mature student Rachael Handy started the two-year NZ Wool Technology and Classing certificate through SIT, driving daily for the block courses between Fairlie and Christchurch.

She wanted to further a career in the wool industry and said knowing about all aspects of wool was important.

The course was highly regarded by the whole industry, she said, and continuing to teach it to a high standard was critical.

Knowledge gained there flowed through the whole supply chain, she said.

"Many people, I think, believe this qualification, which is the only one, the only formal qualification in the wool industry at the moment, is just for people that are wanting to undertake work in the sheds or (wool) classing. But it's so much more than that.

"We had people in the programme that were working in the wool scours, we had people that were working in the fashion industry, working on farm, farmers wives, we had students that were also in their last year at Lincoln.

"The other part of the qualification that is crucial is the requirement for a particular career pathway into that wool classing space. It's really important from a consistency and quality perspective for the industry."

Wool, like any primary sector product needed science and technology expertise and education to back it up - but Campaign for Wool chair Ryan Cosgrove said that did not exist.

The education sector was lopsided with many retiring and no one coming in underneath, he said.

"When things are going bad in a market sense, some of these other really fundamental things go to the wayside because we're focused on the market side of the problems.

"But I'm hopeful with the Campaign For Wool and Wool Impact with the strides we're taking at the moment that this is the kind of thing that will get picked up, that will get focused on, and that'll get funded properly. Then we manage to attract more people into the industry in general because we're telling a better story about it domestically," he said.

Cosgrove said one of the problems was that wool education had been bumped around training providers with no clear stewardship. Without a centralised focus, issues such as succession planning around wool tutoring, got missed, he said.

There was not going to be an immediate cliff of capability, but there was a "a very short runway to sort of plug the gap".

Campaign for Wool is going around primary and intermediate schools talking about how cool wool is, and Cosgrove said there was a lot of interest, but competing for those hungry minds and getting them into a career in wool was hard when there were so many other higher profile options.

In the tertiary space there was interest and a recent pilot project received a "tonne of interest" which led the organisation towards implementing a programme aimed at Design and Architecture post-graduate students with a wool block course.

"We'll get there. Keep hopeful, keep positive," Cosgrove said.

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