THE public profile of the West Australian Shearing Industry Association (WASIA) has increased in the past 12 months, which has caught the eye of the wider agricultural industry and pushed a small rise in membership.
WASIA president Darren Spencer addressed the organisation's annual general meeting on Saturday at Perth and described how the "past six months have been interesting for WASIA and the wool industry".
"We've been quite busy on the association front, chasing opportunities to promote the shearing industry and raise our profile in the community," Mr Spencer said.
The effort has resulted in 10 new members and the ability to be recognised as an important aspect of the sheep and wool industry by politicians and industry leaders.
The new recruits take the membership to 71.
Last week's meeting attracted about 60 attendees - which Mr Spencer said was more than the national shearing association was able to attract to its recent meeting.
Mr Spencer said he was recently approached by the Australian Shearing Contractors' Association (SCAA) to merge organisations, but WASIA wouldn't consider it due to its own success and the positive vibe in the association at the moment.
"It is encouraging that we are now growing our membership," Mr Spencer said.
WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan, who opened the meeting, said it was "great to see people joining their organisation and taking an interest".
Guest speaker, Australian Wool Exchange (AWEX) chief executive officer Mark Graves, congratulated the organisation "for being able to have the minister here to open up the conference - that's fantastic".
"The important thing here is WASIA is very influential, not just on a State level but also nationally," Mr Graves said.
"You are actually contributing and being part of an important part of this industry."
WASIA has also managed to put itself in a strong financial position after turning a $25,000 loss into a profit and increasing income from projects, sponsors and fees along with reducing its costs.
"We have had a good year financially with new members joining and extra sponsorship," Mr Spencer said.
WASIA has also influenced other organisations including Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) which is interested in conducting a national survey on the back of WASIA's shearer, shed hand training survey conducted recently.
"Following on from our January meeting we ran a survey on shearer and shed hand training," Mr Spencer said.
"We had measured results from those who completed the survey - mainly from growers, shearers and shed hands.
"AWI are interested in conducting the survey Australia-wide to get a complete picture of industry view of training."
Work was still being done on the shed safety assessment program development with the survey now completed.
"We are waiting on the sign off from AWI to publish the results of the survey and then move to the next stage," he said.
"There's support from members in SCAA for the program because a lot of their sheds could certainly do with improvement."
While things are looking up for WASIA, the industry itself has some ongoing issues to work through, including a declining sheep flock number, activism and attracting people to the industry and keeping them.
Mr Spencer said the recent Federal election result "has given us some breathing space on live export industry and I'm sure it gives some growers more certainty going forward".
"However everyone needs to be vigilant - as all eyes are on us and our industry," he said.
"We can't afford bad headlines."
Mr Spencer said animal welfare standards in sheds needed to be at the highest level to counter any efforts by activists seeking to derail the industry.
Mr Grave said classer registration was a big area of concern for the industry.
The number of woolclassers nationally is about 15,400 but there has been a decline in wool classers by about 12 per cent, including professional classers and owner classers across the board.
Most professional classers are in New South Wales and Victoria, while owner classers dominated WA and South Australia.
Mr Grave said the decline was not surprising but the "disappointing part about here in WA is that the decline in percentage terms is closer to 20pc".
"That's 20pc less professional classers to select or choose from and help you do your job," although it was pointed out that that may only be a drop of 5pc due to some classers not working for some time but keeping their registration active.
"I'm guessing that that is not a surprise to you, because we hear it over and over again how difficult it is to get classers into the industry," Mr Grave said.
"On the other side, the owner classes, there's a decline in 10-11pc.
"WA and SA are the home of the owner classer - that's where the vast majority, close to 75-80pc of our owner classers are, largely because of the remote locations.
"The struggle we have is trying to get new people into the industry.
"How do we get them and how do we retain them?
"This is not just our challenge, this is an industry challenge.
"In a seasonal business, how do we ensure we give enough skills and opportunity for new classers or new people to come into the industry?"
Mr Grave said AWEX was looking at traineeships and introducing skills during years 10, 11 and12 that "will lead into a formal qualification once they leave school and have industry experience".
"One of the key complaints we hear is that some of the people that have been trained as classers are not necessarily up to date or job ready," he said.
"Now in education the aim is make people competent - but in this profession we want them to be job ready.
"So how do we do that?
"How do we upskill and bring local talent into the industry and keep them there.
"That's the challenge."
Ms MacTiernan said in some sheep producing areas in WA the unemployment rate was as high as 25pc - meaning there was an untapped workforce there that needed to be enticed into the industry.
"We have got to do more to engage people in regional WA who should be able to work in this fabulous industry," Ms MacTiernan said.
"There's work being done with AWI looking at ways we educate and how we can deal with some of the issues.
"We should be looking at technology to help shearers make this a simpler job and less physically demanding.
"I think we are a long way away from there being robots out there shearing entire sheep, but we need to be looking at how automation and technology can improve the industry.
"There is the money out there for people to invest in the proper equipment that is going to make the life of shearers better.
"WASIA has been into see us and we are keen to work with them on how we can ensure that the conditions that are out there for shearing contractors and their teams really are fit for purpose - and fit for people in the 21st century.
"We have had a couple of decades of very low prices where there probably hasn't been the investment but now is the time to work with us to ensure that we really do get these standards that are going to make this an attractive job.
"It still is going to be a hard job - it is going to be out often in very hot places doing physically very hard work - but we want to make sure that we can attract people by making it as comfortable as possible.
"Making shearers and their teams feel valued and that we have done everything that we can to deal with the occupational health and safety issues that are inherent in dealing with this equipment and dealing with a job that is a tough physical job."