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HomeIssue 9Cart before horse: Govt seeks visitors while staff critically short

Cart before horse: Govt seeks visitors while staff critically short

By JULIUS DENNIS

After a hectic Easter period, the shortage of skilled labour continues to wreak havoc in tourism operations across Central Australia and has some within the industry asking where the help is going to come from.

Put simply by one source, if this were 500 jobs in the Central Australian mining sector, the government would be falling over themselves to lend a helping hand to fill them.

But this is far more than a 500 job hole in the job market. As reported last week by the News there are more than 7000 job vacancies in the Northern Territory hospitality sector.

At the Ayers Rock Resort, CEO Mathew Cameron Smith, the sole spokesperson for Central Australia’s largest tourism operator, has been unavailable to answer questions regarding staffing shortages.

Anecdotal chats with staff shows fractures in the staffing levels: One security guard was finishing up his shift, only to head to the kitchen to help out.

Walkers at Kata Tjuta (the Olgas).

At bars, flustered managers served customers. This all with only three of the five hotels and restaurants operating.

One bar manager said that while they too have at times been left without the required staffing, they have seen an uptick in job applications since the end of JobKeeper at the end of March.

Still, Mr Cameron Smith says that 150 staff are needed for the resort to reopen the newly refurbished Desert Gardens hotel.

After their survey into staffing shortages, with no direct answer to where the workers needed for these, Hospitality NT has launched another survey, this one to assess the economic damage.

The results to that survey should be known next week.

CEO Alex Bruce says the situation is worse in rural and remote parts of the Territory.

Tourism and Hospitality Minister Natasha Fyles says the government is “investigating further incentives and initiatives and we are working with industry and local businesses to find practical ways to assist and support them”.

Minister Fyles also points to preexisting measures such as JobTrainer and user choice funding which provides funding for job training services, but does not offer any new measures.

While the government continues to spruce their support of the industry, it remains unclear whether they say this shortages coming at all.

A media release from the March 29 boasted of a multitude of ways to bring in more tourists, but no target to bring in workers to service them.

Some within the industry think that perhaps the government never believed their campaigns would work to such a great extent.

While inaction persists, owners and managers cannot benefit of what should be a good thing: A much needed surge of interstate visitors.

At the Ross River Resort (pictured), the popular campground 83 kilometres east of Alice Springs, Lee Donal is struggling to staff the restaurant and bar ahead of next weekend’s Wide Open Spaces music festival next week.

The festival brings around 2000 people to the resort and is usually a great financial start to the season.

This year, the venue will be pared back: “The reality is that this year that will be severely limited, which of course, reduces our income. Our first aim is to look after the festival goers.”

As for future festivals at the resort, such as Blacken, a heavy metal festival planned for August, Ms Donald is unsure.

“You know we can’t plan business ahead we can’t plan bookings ahead because I can’t be sure that I’m going to have staff.”

If Ms Donald is relying on the return of backpackers, Ronald Sterry, the owner of the popular Alice Springs accommodation for Working Holiday Makers, Ronnie’s Bush House, has bad news: “They’re not coming, they haven’t come since the virus.”

In normal circumstances, the Bush House would be full of travellers working their way around Australia, but since these workers were excluded from JobKeeper payments there have been nearly 100,000 of them leaving the country.

Now the Bush House is a little over half full, and the clientele has changed. What was once a place for working holidaymakers is now primarily filled with migrants trying to find their feet in Alice Springs.

Mr Sterry says that for him the saddest part about this situation is the number of unemployed people in Alice Springs who cannot or will not fill these roles.

He says that a combination of “sit-down money” and a reliance on a foreign workforce which was left unsupported when push came to shove, has left Alice Springs and Central Australia in the situation it finds itself in today.

This sentiment of lack of governmental support for the tourism industry has also been seen in the comments section of this paper.

IMAGE AT TOP: The government’s Tourism NT, under a scheme worth $16.2m, is offering vouchers worth up to $200 o a $1 for $1 basis, providing “an incentive to support our struggling tourism industry and to experience our great Territory lifestyle”. The government appears to be just realising that money would be better spent on attracting staff – 7000 are estimated to be needed – not tourists, for the moment.

 

UPDATE 6.35pm

This memo from the NT Government was released today at 4.42pm by Minister for Jobs and Training, Paul Kirby. That is three hours and eight minutes after we published this report and eight days after we first raised these issues.

Mr Kirby says in his release: “Today, the Territory Government has announced a $2m Critical Worker Support Package aimed at attracting hospitality and tourism workers to the Territory to alleviate current pressures around a worker shortfall.

“The Territory Government’s support package will immediately boost skills and job opportunities for Territorians, and attract workers to the Territory through a variety of strategic incentives and initiatives including travel and accommodation reimbursements, and upskilling opportunities.

“We have listened to local industry and we know they’re struggling to find workers – that’s why the Territory Labor Government is stepping up to assist our hospitality and tourism operators to find staff now.”

4 COMMENTS

  1. Now we see that the backpacker hospitality workers who are low paid employees have a bargaining tool. Their labour is a valuable commodity and as such a bargaining tool.

  2. Anybody remember that we used to have a School of Tourism and Hospitality based here in Alice Springs?
    It was a spin-off from the Community College of Central Australia but had its own separate campus, the former Gillen House, on the corner of Memorial Avenue and Flynn Drive.
    It was opened in early 1981, exactly 40 years ago – a few months before the official opening of Alice Springs Federal casino (now Lasseter’s) and ahead of the big hotel developments (and Yulara) during the 1980s.
    The School of Tourism and Hospitality was triggered by a seminar focussed on the needs of the local tourism industry in Alice Springs in 1976, organised by the Alice Springs Tourist Promotion Association in conjunction with the community college.
    The seminar also identified the need for a Minister for Tourism in the brand new NT Legislative Assembly – all of these initiatives were soon realised within the early optimistic years of NT self-government.
    Everything was hunky-dory until the shock of the national pilots’ strike of late 1989, followed soon after by the “recession we had to have” of the early 1990s in turn leading to a major revision of the NT tourism sector (The Kennedy Report) of 1992 that drastically changed the NT Government’s role and interaction with the industry.
    The NT tourism sector has never fully recovered from the body blows of that period and has been enduring a long slow decline ever since that time.
    One of those changes was the closure of the School of Tourism and Hospitality at Gillen House in the late 1990s, replaced by the Desert Lantern training facility at CDU (which would appear to come nowhere close to satisfying industry requirements).
    By this time there was increasing reliance on backpackers and visitors on working holidays to fill positions in tourism and hospitality, a trend that has grown over time.
    In recent years, largely since the turn of the century, there has been a steady decline in tourist accommodation in Alice Springs, epitomised by the demolition of Melanka in 2008 but by no means is that example an orphan in the local scene.
    It appears we are going full circle: Suddenly there is the prospect of a major upsurge in visitor numbers but neither the staff, services or facilities to cater for them.
    Just as it was in the mid 1970s.

  3. One thing is certain, the staff in the tourism industry is not well look after. The operators relying on the backpackers have for too long ignored the qualified permanent locals.
    This is the law of karma. What goes around come around: “Men are not punished for their sins, but by them.” Elbert Hubbard.

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