Above: Earthworks crew at Kilgariff. Photo from our archive.
By RACHEL McFADDEN
Gone are the golden days when just about anyone could walk into a job in Alice Springs. Although the unemployment rate is low here compared to the national rate, the job market has increasingly become more competitive.
It’s not that there are fewer jobs, there is more competition from an interstate and overseas workforce and this is not necessarily a bad thing, says Kay Eade, Executive Officer at the Chamber of Commerce.
“Competition can be healthy. It leads to a more productive and efficient workforce.”
Recalling a time when unemployment was as low as 1% in Alice Springs, Ms Eade says the local economy has changed quite significantly in recent years.
According to the latest Census date from 2011 the unemployment rate in Alice sits at 3% compared to the national rate of 5.6%. The Census definition of ‘unemployment’ only takes into account people aged 15-65 who are actively engaged in the workforce, either working or looking for work.
The rate does not reflect people of working age who have never been engaged in the formal workforce – as is the case with a significant number of Aboriginal people – nor does it account for people who have left the workforce for parental duties.
Dr Andrew Taylor from Charles Darwin University also says that measuring unemployment rates in Alice Springs can be problematic as the workforce is likely to move in order to find employment.
This certainly is the case in the building and construction industry, which Ms Eade says has been hardest hit in recent times.
Local builder Jamie de Brenni says that although the building industry has stabilised in the past six months it is not uncommon for builders to move out of town in order to find employment.
As local builders are moving out, interstate builders are moving in – with roughly half of Probuild’s Alice Springs workforce coming from interstate.
Left: Local builder Jamie de Brenni.
Mick Betteridge, Director of Probuild Northern Territory, says at this stage the skills and expertise required to fill vacancies at Probuild are not here in Alice Springs and he has been forced to recruit elsewhere.
Not a fan of the fly-in, fly-out model – “it’s not giving anything to the town” – Mr Betteridge says he is committed to recruiting interstaters with “staying power’” and a view to permanently relocate to Alice.
“We hope our workforce will grow with us,” he says.
Chris Jackson, owner of Centre Labourforce, a Northern Territory recruitment agency, says that increasingly businesses are recruiting interstate to fill specialised fields.
Although there may be a perception that people from interstate are taking locals’ jobs, this isn’t necessary the case and the arrival of people from interstate and overseas can be viewed as positive.
Dr Taylor says had it not been for an influx of overseas migrants, Alice Springs’ population would have declined. Population growth is important to economic development, he says. Not only does it encourage infrastructure and industry, it also boosts the arrival of overseas tourists visiting relatives that have relocated to Alice.
Although a more competitive workforce has advantages for employers, Ms Jackson says business owners are “stressed out” – facing pretty lean times.
In the building industry Mr Betteridge says this has resulted from greater competition in the industry, with it now “being flooded with interstate companies”.
Mr de Brenni and Julie Ross, Executive Director of Ross Engineering, agree and say it is important to keep business in the Territory.
“Territory businesses support Territory communities,” Ms Ross says, citing her company’s support of local sporting and community groups.
But for major building and construction contracts larger interstate companies are able to outbid local companies.
“Alice Springs’ businesses have higher overheads, making it harder for them to compete and their profit margins lower,” Ms Eade says.
Mr de Brenni says not only is competition tough, there can be a prejudice against local companies: “They think we are country hicks.”
And the workforce in Alice Spring has been seen as lazy and disloyal, according to Ms Eade – but that’s changing.
Right: Optimistic, Kay Eade, Executive Officer at the Alice Springs Chamber of Commerce.
Mr de Brenni argues that local businesses are a smart option for companies: “In a town like this word of mouth is important. We aren’t going to risk doing a bad job and it getting around. Our business model relies on trust from the community. Larger interstate companies don’t offer the same guarantee.”
The importance of keeping local business afloat is more pressing than ever given the present insecurity in the government and not-for-profit sector.
According to CENSUS data, 35% of the Alice Springs community between the ages of 25-64 are employed in public administration or health industries, but these jobs are no longer as secure as they used to be. With the end of financial year looming many in sector are holding their breath to see whether government funding (and their employment) will continue.
Already, government cuts have lead to redundancies in academia, health and community support services, with some previous employees in the sector struggling to find work, facing periods of up to six months of unemployment.
Alice Springs’ other large industry – the tourism industry – has also been suffering an economic downturn. Mr Betteridge saying that Alice Springs is in dire need of another industry.
Last week’s announcement that Tellus Holdings plans to be Central Australia’s largest private sector employer – if its salt mining proposal is passed – has been welcomed by the construction industry.
Backpackers seem to still find work easily, particularly in the hospitality industry. A New Zealand backpacker told the Alice Springs News Online: “If you have not found a job within two weeks in Alice, you are not looking hard enough.”
Left: Tourism decline, empty coach carpark below at Ormiston Gorge on Queen’s Birthday weekend.
But the more qualified you are, the harder it is now, it seems, to find a suitable job.
And there are also a few barriers to engaging Aboriginal people in the workforce, says Ms Eade. These include poor literacy and varying cultural understandings of workplace expectations. She says some Alice Springs companies have done exemplary work overcoming these barriers and encouraged other businesses to follow suit, including by offering work experience placements to students.
Alice Springs’ economy has faced significant changes in recent years as it opens up to national and international competition and strives for sustained economic development and viability. These changes, perhaps an economic necessity, have been felt on the ground, but Kay Eade keeps her focus on the positives:
“The beauty of Alice Springs is that people will give you a go. Unlike urban centres where you have to be job-perfect, employers – so long as you show loyalty – will train you on the job. It’s a great town for opportunity,” she says.