National worker shortage stretches from the center of the biggest cities to the most remote mountains

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

After a 10-minute drive, she straps on her skis and hurtles down the hill for a day brewing hot coffees and serving cold beers at Hoff Hut, overlooking Mount Hotham’s first ski run.

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

“How could you not? I ski to work!”

Leah works hard with two jobs – “morning coffees and shakin’ cocktails at night” – as ski resorts struggle to fill roles and keep a surge of happy visitors.

But it’s not just regional and remote areas that are suffering from a labor shortage. It is a national problem.

Not enough workers

When Cassandra Winzar speaks to businesses, Australia’s labor shortage is the main issue – more pressing than energy prices, supply chains or a rise in the minimum wage.

CEDA’s Cassandra Wiznar sees no easy answers to our country’s labor shortage.(Provided)

There are more than 423,000 vacancies, according to recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It’s a record.

“And that’s a pretty big record,” says Ms Winzar, senior economist at the Committee for Economic Development Australia (CEDA).

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

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

The underemployment rate, by calculating the people who would like more work, has just reached a low in 14 years, going from 6.1% to 5.7%.

The underutilization rate – a combination of underemployment and the unemployment rate – has fallen to its lowest level in 40 years.

Opportunity lost

Businesses are coping with the shortage in different ways.

Some operators in the Alpine region are reducing hours, reducing the number of menu options and closing mid-week to give exhausted employees time to recuperate.

All are desperate to maintain service levels so that visitors have the best experience during their brief vacation.

On the mountain, that means employees like Ms. Szmalko are simply working longer hours.

“A full day? I would usually be here at 7:30 in the morning and move on to the other job, maybe 11 or 12 at night,” she said.

“And start all over again the next day.”

Nathan Butterworth, managing director of Mt Hotham Skiing Company, has 600 employees who run the lifts and services at the Victorian resort.

A man in his thirties wearing a waistcoat over a blue checkered shirt looks directly into the camera
Nathan Butterworth says the reopening of international borders has helped fill specialist positions.(ABC News: Sean Warren)

He described workers putting in longer hours as part of a “defensive strategy” to deal with an expected flood of visitors ahead of an expected bumper snow season.

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

“We have a passionate group of people who remain incredibly committed not only to the industry, but also to the resorts they have chosen.”

COVID Shortage

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

“This labor shortage is long overdue,” says Alison Preston, Professor of Economics and Business School at the University of Western Australia.

“COVID really, ultimately, was just the catalyst that exposed it all.”

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

Those left behind were left out of many of the supports that have helped locals through the crisis – as student queues relied on charity food banks to keep them alive.

As Australia’s borders have reopened, experts like Professor Preston see only a slow recovery in the number of workers migrating here.

Finding affordable daycare is also difficult. Retirees can be penalized if they earn more than a certain ceiling.

And the parameters of 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 work.

‘We haven’t necessarily had the flexibility we wanted in the labor market,’ Prof Preston said.

“As we try to solve one problem, whether it’s thresholds or tax changes or whatever, we’re imposing another problem in there.”

Housing problem

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

Hoff Hut operator Jamie Walker had to search far and wide for his staff – “We had to do a fair ride…Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria” – and once they were secure he had to find a place to live.

With another company, he rented a house near Dinner Plain to house four of his employees.

“It’s the extra costs we have to pay to secure accommodation for our staff – that’s what kills us the most,” he said.

Jamie Walker
Jamie Walker has rented a house for the season. Without it, its workers would have nowhere to live – and it would struggle to find enough workers. (ABC News: Daniel Ziffer)

The station must house about 85% of its staff.

For Nathan Butterworth, the problem is not 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,” said he declared.

“The other element obviously is wherever we consume housing for our seasonal workplace, we move…housing that would otherwise be available for people looking to come and have fun.”

work harder

One solution to Australia’s labor shortage is basically to squeeze the lemon harder.

Having available workers take longer hours means service levels can be maintained and visitors are satisfied.

“When you have a finite number of beds and a finite amount of space, we encourage people to be fully employed and to consider all options in how they can contribute to teams,” Butterworth said.

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

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

“We’ve been here four months and we’ve been working hard and we’re here to work hard, as much as we’re here to ski.”

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