The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter with the Australia bureau.
You Just Can’t Get the Staff
By Natasha Frost
A restaurant in Sydney earlier this year. Australia’s labor and skills shortage has affected almost every sector, including food service.Credit…Isabella Moore for The New York Times
I returned to Melbourne early this week after nearly two months out of Australia. Before I had even left the airport terminal, I was confronted by the labor and skills shortage that has dominated headlines in the country — via chaos among the baggage carousels.
So acute is the dearth of baggage handlers in Australia that Qantas, the national airline, recently implored its top brass to do a three-month embed with ground operations staff. In an email, Colin Hughes, the chief operating officer, called on Qantas managers and executives to take on shifts in baggage-handling roles, slinging suitcases of up to 70 pounds each.
It’s not just in the airports. Among the O.E.C.D. nations, Australia’s shortage of labor and skills is second in severity only to Canada’s. That has affected almost every sector: transportation, but also health care, food service, construction and real estate. And signs of the problem are everywhere.
Walking down Chapel Street the next day, I spotted a chalkboard sign outside a French restaurant warning pointedly of a shortage of workers, and of delayed service for would-be customers. “Seems like no one wants to work these days!” it read.
In the United States, a similar shortage has variously been described as a Great Renegotiation, a Great Rethink or a Great Resignation, with more than 40 million people leaving their jobs last year, often for better-paying ones. In Australia, Josh Frydenberg, the former federal treasurer, has tried to recast it as a Great Reshuffle.
But whatever you call it, in New Zealand and Australia, fierce demand for workers is being made worse by sluggish migration, as well as a skilled work force that’s desperate to get out after two years of rigid border closures.
Australia and New Zealand are nations of migrants, which may encompass those moving permanently and those who intend to return to their home country. Roughly 30 percent of the population in both nations was born overseas, according to data from the United Nations. The countries have been built up over many decades by waves of people arriving from Europe, Asia and elsewhere in the Pacific; their projected future growth has been predicated on the arrival of yet more migrants, hoping to build a better life.
Between 2010 and 2019, Australia’s population grew by about 1.6 percent each year, with almost two-thirds of that coming from inward migration. But in 2020, when the country closed its borders to pursue a zero Covid strategy, migration to Australia slumped.
Even now, with skilled workers a valuable commodity in a tight global labor market, migration has not yet returned to prepandemic levels. A statement from the Department of Home Affairs acknowledged “the pressures facing the Australian community, in particular with respect to our economic recovery from Covid-19 and the demand for skilled workers.”
The government has also announced a forthcoming “Jobs and Skills Summit” and has increased the number of places available to working backpackers — who typically take jobs in tourism or the food service industry — by 30 percent. Even so, less than 80,000 working holiday visas were issued between 2021 and 2022, compared with more than 180,000 a year before the pandemic, according to data from the Department of Home Affairs.
The effects of Covid-19 have laid bare some of the existing problems in Australia’s labor force, Alison Preston, an economist at the University of Western Australia, told me this week. Australian women participate in the work force at lower rates than men, often leaving full-time employment when they have children. That has prompted sectors with many female workers, like teaching, health or child care, to address gaps with migration. “In the past, we’ve found nurses elsewhere; in Ireland, say, or India,” she said. “But that’s harder now.”
At the same time, skilled young people are departing in droves. For many Australians, this is the first opportunity to go overseas since 2020, after the country closed its borders and barred citizens from departing. In New Zealand, June was the 16th month in a row where more people departed the country than arrived, according to data released by its government this week, with 49,200 migrants arriving and 60,700 people departing.
Speaking to the nonprofit think tank Ceda around the outset of the pandemic, Paul Bloxham, HSBC’s chief economist for Australia and New Zealand, warned about the importance of migration to Australia’s economic growth — and of the dangers of prolonged border closures.
“A lot of what’s driven Australia’s growth in recent years has been strong population growth driven by migration,” he said. “This is going to present a lot of challenges for our growth story, if it turns out that migration stays weak for a considerable period of time.”
And now, this week’s stories:
Australia and New Zealand
How New Zealand’s Climate Fight Is Threatening Its Iconic Farmland. As the country puts a growing price on greenhouse emissions, investors are rushing to buy up pastures and plant carbon-sucking trees.
A U.S. Return to Guadalcanal, in Another Tense Historical Moment. At a ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of a crucial battle in the Pacific, two daughters of men who served there reflected on the lessons of war.
Around The Times
Retirees Take Part-Time Work in the Travel Industry. Spend 15 hours a week loading baggage at the airport or passing out towels at the pool to see Europe for a fraction of the usual cost.
Modern and Ancient Crickets May Sing the Same Song. With a one-of-a-kind museum specimen, researchers recreated the chirp of ancient cricket relatives that droned alongside the dinosaurs.
For Palestinian Prisoners, Hunger Strikes Are a Battle of Stomachs. People detained by Israel have used these protests as a way to demand better living conditions and an end to indefinite detentions.
In Italy, Where Pizza Was Born, Domino’s Bows Out. The company seems to have been done in by a proliferation of home-delivery food during the pandemic and a desire for more artisanal pies.
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