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Rethinking the shearing shed hierarchy

Regional News

A new approach to managing shearing teams is paying dividends in the Mid North and helping address the skills shortage.

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When Sarah-Jane Abley’s shearing team steps onto the boards of shearing sheds around South Australia, out goes any hierarchy and instead the team just gets to work.

It is all part of a new approach to her shearing contracting business run with shearer husband Ben Ker, offering good, old-fashioned service with fresh new ideas to help maintain quality staff and address a nationwide shearer shortage.

“We work as a team, no one is above anyone in the shed, no shearer, no classer, no cook, everyone is the same including myself and Ben, so we all go into the shed and work together,” Sarah-Jane said.

And their staff know their expectations.

Random drug testing, with zero tolerance for drug use, is ensuring Sarah-Jane’s Kiminnes Ol’ School Shearing Contracting is a clean team.

The fresh approach has been well-received by her clients, pushing the contracting business from strength to strength since Sarah-Jane started it two years ago.

She has 12 staff – up to 50 in the main shearing season from July through till Christmas – with the team travelling mainly throughout the Mid North of the state, across to Ceduna and through the pastoral areas.

After working for 15 years in the corporate world, Sarah-Jane needed a change of pace and packed her dog in the car, drove across the border and found a job working in shearing sheds, where she met Ben.

Returning to SA, the couple found it difficult to find regular work together – Sarah-Jane working on the boards and Ben shearing – and it was then that they decided to “freelance”.

More shearers wanted to join their team, more clients started flocking in and a contracting team was developed.

With Sarah-Jane battling stage three cervical cancer, her role today is more in the organisation of the team than on the boards, but with her dogged determination and drive there is no stopping this passionate woman who is keen to see changes in an industry she loves.

“I started this business seeing a void in the professionalism in the industry,” Sarah-Jane said.

“My main focus, in the beginning, was always animal welfare, ensuring my staff and the farmer are working together, that the working conditions in the sheds are adequate, and that all my staff are getting their entitlements.”

It is her first-hand experience and insight into a corporate work environment that has led Sarah-Jane to try new things and stabilise employment for her staff.

“We pay above award, but one initiative I’m trialling is paying full-time wages to some of my staff,” she said.

“This industry makes it really hard for people to get bank loans because they’re casual or seasonal workers.

“The reality is that my partner for instance works pretty much 11 months of the year, as do some of our staff.

“Full-time pay would mean they will get all their entitlements such as sick leave and holiday pay.”

Sarah-Jane has a focus on finding work “close to home” and is also addressing the need for childcare, even considering hiring an au-pair for the group.

“Shearing is a big ‘camp out’ industry requiring staff to stay away. I I want to mainly keep my operations in the Mid North so I can keep a stable shearing team and my staff can go home to their family each night,” she said.

“I’m really trying to find ways I can help my staff and their families and am hoping to trial the employment of an au-pair to provide childcare.

“Myself and my mum have been helping some of the workers with their kids, but if we want to increase employment in the industry we need to sometimes look outside the square.

“Working in a shearing shed is from 7am to 5.30pm or 6pm, some mornings we’re up at 5am to leave at 6am to drive an hour to get to a shed and not home until 7pm so that’s a really big thing for families. Accessing childcare during those hours is hard and let’s face it, childcare is expensive.

“For single parents it’s especially hard, so if we can offer that service where we look after the little ones and do the drop-offs and pick-ups, it’s encouraging more people to work and supporting them with their family.”

Nothing is really out of the question for her staff, with Sarah-Jane encouraging feedback from them regularly – even the suggestion of a masseuse has not been scoffed at.

While she is keen to keep her team at a manageable size to maintain the personalised approach for both her staff and clients, new ideas continue to bubble out for this go-getter and it seems there is no stopping her.

“In anything that you do, if you don’t give it 100 per cent you’re not going to succeed,” Sarah-Jane said.

“The shearing industry can be a great career, just see where it takes you, give it a go.”

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