Australia jobs: 'The staffing issue is impossible'

2 months ago 34

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By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Overseas staff have underpinned Australia's hospitality sector for decades but the pandemic forced many bar workers and wait staff to return home

Wanted: goat farmers, acupuncturists and zookeepers.

Pandemic border closures have further exacerbated a serious skills shortage that has, for years, held Australia's economy back.

Many foreign workers swiftly returned to their home nations when parts of the Australian economy retreated into a long and uncertain Covid hibernation.

Now, blinking in the spring sunshine, Sydneysiders, Melburnians and Canberrans are now emerging from their Covid caves, and are eager to spend, however, many businesses are facing a chronic labour crunch - they can't find enough staff to keep their businesses running.

"The staffing issue is impossible," says celebrity chef, Neil Perry, at his new restaurant 'Margaret' in Sydney's upmarket Double Bay district.

"Right now, this is the worst I have ever seen the labour shortage in the industry, ever, by some considerable amount."

Foreign staff have underpinned Australia's hospitality sector for decades, but coronavirus lockdowns forced many waiters, cooks, pastry chefs, fishmongers and butchers to return to their home countries.

Perry wants them back, and tells the BBC that politicians in Canberra need to enact a bold, nation-building plan.

"The government have to look at it like it is the end of World War Two and Australia is going to be built on the quality of immigration we bring in," he adds.

"The (hospitality) industry is trying to come back but there is a real handbrake to it, and it is the human labour side of it that is an issue."

One company is so desperate for staff that it's offering to pay for flights to Australia for overseas recruits and, if needed, hotel quarantine fees, as well as a fortnight's rent plus a $1000 food and drink voucher.

It might seem too good to be true, but there's more. For UK citizens, Australian Venue Co, one of the country's largest pub groups, will also help with visa costs.

Image source, Paul Waterson

Image caption, Boss of Australian Venue Co, one of the country's largest pub groups, Paul Waterson, hopes to lure UK workers with help to cover visa costs

"We're expecting enormous demand from young Brits coming over," says the group's chief executive, Paul Waterson.

Before the Covid shutdown about a fifth of the company's workforce were foreign visa holders. It has a recruitment war chest of AUD$4 million (£2.2m) to bring some of them back.

For chefs and other workers entitled to permanent residency in Australia, those return costs could reach AUD $20,000 (£10,992) per person. Working holidaymakers, or backpackers, will also be eligible, along with Australians who've been stranded abroad by border restrictions.

But labour shortages aren't a new challenge for Australia, and immigration has over many decades successfully helped to fill the gaps and seed a multicultural nation.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Indoor restaurant dining has resumed but staffing is a struggle say businesss owners

About a third of Aussies were born somewhere else: the official Skilled Occupation List for prospective migrants is exhaustive, and includes diving instructors, dog handlers, dancers and diesel mechanics - and that's just the 'ds.'

At a start-up in Sydney's inner-city, highly-skilled scientists are in demand but hiring is proving difficult.

Inside a sealed glass laboratory, workers kitted-out in gowns, masks and goggles pore over specimens and data. They're developing what could be a new type of carbon-neutral food where meat is grown from animal cells, which are isolated from small samples of muscle - around the size of an almond - and the tissue is cultivated in the lab.

Image source, Nick Fraser

Image caption, Tim Noakesmith and George Peppou, co-founders at cultivated meat producer Vow are looking for hires with specialist technical skills

"Ultimately we need to feed billions of people," explains Tim Noakesmith, a co-founder at Vow. It is, though, a cutting-edge enterprise that is short of the right type of people.

"What we need are some of the smartest people in the world across cell biology, material scientists and also engineering. Everything from autonomous vehicle backgrounds to financial technology. And they come here to work on something that is a massive, massive challenge," Mr Noakesmith tells the BBC.

"Getting people in is hard. Getting people excited about the mission is comparably easier, but getting people into the country (because of immigration red tape) can be extremely challenging."

As Australia's international borders prepare to reopen after a year-and-a-half, the company is eager for new recruits to join its 'crack team'. "What we are doing is incredibly hard technical development and we need some of the brightest minds from across the planet," explains George Peppou, another co-founder.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Australia's unemployment rate stood at 4.6% in September but some economists say the total may be much higher

But for some firms, the solution to a skills and talent crunch could lie much closer to home.

Australia has a significant untapped pool of workers: refugees, from Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and elsewhere, who desperately want a job.

Data from the Australian Institute of Family Studies suggest only 6% find work within six months of arrival in Australia. Within two years, only a quarter have a foot on the employment ladder.

"The Australian economy can definitely benefit by getting refugees into the workforce. There has been recent research by Deloitte that showed that if we would increase the intake of refugees that means billions of dollars into the Australian economy," explains Betina Szkudlarek, an Associate Professor in Management at the University of Sydney Business School.

Image source, Betina Szkudlarek

Image caption, The untapped workforce potential of Australia's refugee population could represent a huge boost for the economy says Betina Szkudlarek from University of Sydney Business School

"We can't see refugees as a generic pool of low-skilled employees. Not at all. They are extremely diverse. So, that means every employer possibly could find a…very driven, committed…employee within that talent pool," she tells BBC news.

Officially, Australia's latest unemployment rate stood at 4.6% in September. However, some economists believe the true figure may be closer to 10% because many people have stopped looking for a job. That could equate to about 1.3 million people.

What's stopping this group filling up the job vacancies? There's no easy answer, but what's clear is the skills deficit is a barrier.

Tim Harcourt, the chief economist at the University of Technology Sydney, believes that education, not a reliance on foreign workers, is the key to solving Australia's labour market problems.

"The pandemic has shown that temporary migration is not a panacea to our labour market, and it probably shows that some industries rely too much on globalisation," he says.

"In some cases people are using temporary migration [for staffing] because they are not paying decent wages... [It's] a way of avoiding investing in human capital and spending more on education and training."

But, for now, Australia needs legions of working migrants to fuel its economic recovery. Free flights and booze vouchers will certainly help.

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