Don't talk to Scott Berry about the difficulty of finding work.
As property manager of the Bluestone Motor Inn in Tennant Creek, Mr Scott regularly has to scramble to find staff to do house cleaning and serve food for travellers to the outback town.
“A lot of people out this way don't want to work," Mr Scott said. "They don't want to work in the heat, they don't want to do cleaning.”
That said, it won't suit everybody to work in this Northern Territory outpost where the mercury has reached an average daily maximum of 37.7 degrees Celsius so far this year - or higher than typical blood temperature for humans.
To staff his business, though, Mr Scott usually fills two of his 10 positions with overseas workers, roaming in from as far away as Italy, Germany and Taiwan.
The difficulties of finding good labour in remote regions at the time of a mining boom is one of the reasons the government is considering changes to its skilled visa program that will allow tens of thousands of foreigners to get work permits. Many of them will find their way to pubs, resorts and hotels in a bid to relieve chronic shortages of staff.
Tourism minister Martin Ferguson and minister for immigration Chris Bowen are seeking public comment on a proposed reform of the 457 skilled visa program that would allow foreign workers to stay longer.
The scarcity of jobseekers in some parts of the country jars with the experience of many - particularly the young - in urban areas far removed from the mining boom.
As BusinessDay revealed yesterday, youth unemployment has spiked over the past four years as employers opt for more experienced staff rather than those just out of school. The jobless rate for 15-19 years rose to 17.3 per cent in December, while the overall unemployment rate remained at 5.2 per cent in its last reading from a month earlier.
Mr Ferguson said there are already an estimated 36,000 vacancies in the hospitality industry with forecasts of 56,000 more workers to be required by 2015, especially in regional areas. That shortfall, and the likelihood that positions would be filled by visitors, prompted the Australian Financial Review to headline a story on such shortages as "The pub with no Aussies."
IBIS World's senior industry analyst, Ian MacGowan said the hospitality industry has struggled for some time to attract and keep staff. “Hospitality is one of the lowest paid industries in Australia along with retail and community services,” he said.
The standard hours are long and irregular and often don’t appeal to people who have families, he said. “Australian workers are looking to up their skills for a more long-term career and are looking for higher paid jobs,” he said. Mr MacGowan said the hospitality sector isn’t the only industry that has had difficulty finding workers, noting the agriculture and transportation sectors are also battling to lure workers.
Martin Smith, proprietor at the Radeka Downunder motel in the South Australian opal mecca of Coober Pedy, said it's difficult to find and retain staff for his hotel with the mining boom on.
“The multinational mining companies are paying good money for people,” said Mr Smith. “They pay much higher money than us.”
“They're taking people out of the town,” he said.
For that reason, Mr Smith relies on a steady supply of itinerate Australian and New Zealand workers travelling across country.
The proposed visa change would cover “experienced” waiters, chefs, bartenders, hotel managers that are hard to fill locally or that are ineligible under other migration programs.
“This template seeks a balance between upholding the standards of the visa system while giving employers easier access to workers whose skills are hard to find in Australia,” Mr Bowen said.
The government said it is looking for views on the proposed change until March 16, 2012. More information can be found at www.tourism.gov.au/labour
For some employers, such as Tennant Creek's Mr Berry, the fact foreigner workers move on after a while can even serve as a positive.
“It's convenient to hire backpackers for the simple fact they only want to stay for a certain amount of time,” said Mr Berry.
This reporter is on Twitter: @chrizap