National worker shortage extends from centre of biggest cities to most remote mountains

There’s no traffic on Leah Szmalko’s commute.

After a 10-minute drive, she clicks on skis and slides down the hill for a day of making hot coffees and serving cold beers at Hoff Hut, overlooking Mt Hotham’s premier ski run.

“Anyone in cities, if you need to change scenery, why not?” she asks.

“How could you not? I ski to work!”

Leah is working hard with two jobs — “Morning coffees and shakin’ cocktails by night” — as ski resorts struggle to fill roles and keep a surge of visitors happy.

But it’s not just regional and remote areas suffering from a shortage of workers. This is a nationwide problem.

Not enough workers

When Cassandra Winzar talks to businesses, Australia’s labour shortage is the top issue — more pressing than energy prices, supply chains or a rise in the minimum wage.

CEDA’s Cassandra Wiznar doesn’t see easy answers for our nation’s labour shortage.(Supplied)

There are more than 423,000 job vacancies, on recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That’s a record high.

“And it’s a record high by a pretty significant degree,” says Ms Winzar, senior economist at the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).

“If we look back to, say, February 2020, just before the pandemic, there were only around 227,000 job vacancies,” she said.

“So we’ve seen a huge increase in just a couple of years”.

The underemployment rate, calculating people who would like more work, just hit a 14-year low, dropping from 6.1 per cent to 5.7 per cent.

The under-utilisation rate — a combination of the underemployment and unemployment rate — has tumbled to a 40-year low.

Opportunity lost

Businesses are dealing with the shortage in different ways.

Some operators in the alpine area are reducing hours, trimming the number of menu options and closing mid-week to give exhausted employees time to recover.

All are desperate to keep up levels of service so that visitors have the best experience on their brief holidays.

Up on the mountain, that means staff like Ms Szmalko are just working more hours.

“A full day? Would usually be here by 7.30 in the morning and knock off at the other job, maybe 11, 12 o’clock at night,” she said.

“And start all over again the next day.”

Nathan Butterworth, general manager of Mt Hotham Skiing Company, has a staff of 600 running the lifts and services at the Victorian resort.

Nathan Butterworth says the re-opening of international borders has helped fill specialist roles.(ABC News: Sean Warren)

He described workers doing more hours as part of a “defence strategy” to deal with an expected flood of visitors ahead of a predicted bumper snow season.

“Encouraging people to be fully employed, and to consider their other options, is another way that they can contribute to the teams,” he said.

“We’ve got a passionate group of people that remain incredibly committed not only to the industry but to their chosen home resorts.”

COVID shortage

The COVID pandemic has exposed a problem experts have been warning about for years — a lack of workers.

“This labour shortage has been a long time coming,” says Alison Preston, professor of economics and the University of Western Australia Business School.

“COVID really has, in the end, just been the catalyst that’s exposed everything”.

The first and most obvious factor is immigration. Australia has typically relied on migration for two-thirds of its population growth but when the pandemic hit in early 2020, international students and people on working visas were urged to leave.

Those remaining were excluded from many of the support measures that helped the local population through the crisis – as queues of students relied on charity food banks to stay alive.

While Australia’s borders have re-opened, experts like Professor Preston see only a slow recovery in the number of workers migrating here.

Finding affordable childcare is also difficult. Pensioners can be penalised if they earn over a certain limit.

And settings in our tax and welfare systems — even things like the rigidity of school hours — reduce the number of people who can work or the hours they can toil.

“We’ve not had necessarily the flexibility that we’ve wanted in the labour market,” Professor Preston said.

“As we tried to fix one problem, be it thresholds or tax changes or whatever else, we impose another problem in there.”

Housing problem

A key issue, particularly in regional and coastal areas, has been a lack of affordable housing.

Hoff Hut operator Jamie Walker had to look far for his staff — “We had to go a fair way around … Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria” — and once they were secured, he had to find somewhere for them to live.

With another business, he’s hired a house in nearby Dinner Plain to house four of his staff.

“It’s the extra costs up-front we have to fork out to secure the accommodation for our staff — that’s the biggest killer for us,” he said.

Jamie Walker has rented a house for the season. Without it, his workers wouldn’t have anywhere to live — and he’d struggle to find enough workers. (ABC News: Daniel Ziffer)

The resort has to house around 85 per cent of its staff.

For Nathan Butterworth, the issue isn’t just the expense.

“I think that becomes the real challenge — not necessarily the availability of housing, it’s the availability at a reasonable price, to make sure that we can provide the services and experiences that people expect at a reasonable price,” he said.

“The other piece is obviously wherever we’re consuming accommodation for our seasonal workplace, we’re displacing … accommodation that would otherwise be available to people that are looking to come and enjoy themselves”.

Read more on Australia’s property market:

  • Australian house prices fall at ‘fastest rate’ since 2008 financial crisis
  • With rent skyrocketing in Ipswich, ‘homeless people are appearing out of nowhere’
  • ACT government outlines plans to deliver 30,000 new homes over five years, including build-to-rent

Working harder

One solution to Australia’s labour shortage is, essentially, to squeeze the lemon harder.

Getting available workers to take on more hours means service levels can be kept up — and visitors kept happy.

“When you’ve got a finite number of beds and a finite amount of space, we’re encouraging people to be fully employed and to consider all the options in the way that they can contribute to the teams,” Mr Butterworth said.

That’s what Ms Szmalko is doing. When ABC News caught up with her, it was on her first break after 12 days straight.

“Most of my friends that I know do have two or three jobs,” she said.

“We’re here for four months and we work hard and we’re here to work hard, as much as we are here to ski.”

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