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Good News Stories / October 8, 2021

Fruitful career switch after redundancy hits hard

Every cloud has a silver lining, the old saying goes, and it’s the kiwifruit industry that’s proved a true blessing in disguise for a former travel industry high-flier.

Jerome Gilbert took a job picking kiwifruit to make ends meet after being made redundant, his corporate role for a travel company a casualty of COVID-19’s economic fallout.

His grassroots entry into the Bay of Plenty’s kiwifruit industry gave him a fresh challenge and was the springboard for a career change. Now just a year on the 34-year-old is Line Manager at EastPack in Te Puke, where he leads a packhouse team of 120.

It’s been a remarkable change of fortune for Jerome, who says being made redundant felt like the sky had fallen in. “I thought travel was going to be my life.”

Working in the local kiwifruit industry has brought security and the satisfaction of a fulfilling job, he says.

More people are turning to the primary sector for a career that can offer industry-recognised training with good prospects. With record volumes of kiwifruit being produced each year, the industry has been increasing its efforts to attract and retain people into careers.

This year, due to the lack of backpackers, there has been the ability for seasonal workers, after the harvest picking and packing, to move straight into pruning and thinning, which is forecast to continue until the 2022 harvest. This has created a full 12-months of work, which is great news for employees as it brings certainty to their jobs.

It is also a win-win for kiwifruit employers, who are able to offer more year-round opportunities as the increased retention of skilled employees can reduce some of the need to recruit and train.

For Jerome, he just wishes he’d made the move sooner. “Covid has changed a lot and made me realise how vulnerable some industries can be.”

Jerome had been a member of Flight Centre’s corporate agency training team and travelled throughout New Zealand and overseas.

After the country was plunged into the Level 4 lockdown last year, he set his mind on a lifestyle change, and relocated to Tauranga. But it wasn’t long before he was made redundant from Flight Centre.

Getting a new job became the priority. “My brother-in-law and his family pick kiwifruit with EastPack, so that’s how I got my introduction – picking kiwifruit and also doing the winter pruning,” he says.

Jerome wanted to step into a management role again, so between seasons he worked for a wholesale hospitality company and continued to search for the right position – even getting his forklift licence to boost his CV.

The best thing about the job? “The community and the enthusiasm that the people bring to the workplace every morning,” he says. “Everyone’s saying hello and happy and having a laugh – that’s the best thing about it. I love it here.”

Much like the whole industry, the packhouse celebrates people by putting on shared lunches and cultural weeks to highlight the backgrounds of those that work there.

Jerome also has a go-getter attitude towards work and does his part for company culture – even if it’s at the expense of himself.

“Before I jump on the speaker and talk to everybody in the morning, I usually do an airport call saying ‘bing-bong’ in a high-pitched voice, and it gets everyone’s attention,” he laughs. “Now it’s become my nickname, so people walk around here calling me Bing Bong.”

For more information on working in the kiwifruit industry visit the New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated website. www.nzkgi.org.nz