MASS-buying houses for workers, recruiting retired butchers and employing Year 10 students part-time … these were some of the solutions explored in the hunt for meat industry staff during a ‘Pain Points’ industry conference on Monday in Brisbane.
Leading figures of the industry shared their problems, and some of their solutions at the AMIC-hosted conference of the Queensland Country Meat Processors Association.
Mayor of Charleville district’s Murweh Shire Council, retail butcher Cr Shaun Radnedge said with COVID, a lot of people had moved back to Charleville and, luckily for him, among those were two butchers in their 60s with “still a lot of work left in them.”
Paul Lavelle of Roma-based Queensland Country Meats said the lack of staff was compounded by a lack of regional housing.
“If we do bring someone in from out-of-town, the problem is trying to house those people. There’s not a single rental left in this town whatsoever for workers.”
Terry Nolan bought 14 houses around the perimeter of his Gympie meat processing plant to house PLS workers. Just prior to the Brisbane conference, he received council planning permission for a workers’ village on a nearby site.
The planning application was lodged mid-year and Mr Nolan, chair of AMIC’s National Processors Council, had been led to believe the process would take six weeks.
“But lots of queries came back. One query asked what colour would it (the village) be and would that fit with the amenity of the area?” He paused. “We’ve got a mine on one side and an abattoir on the other side – what is the amenity of the area? What colour do you want? We’ll paint it that colour.”
He continued: “We never got approval until just last week … but we’ve got to demolish it within 10 years. We spend $9 million doing a workers’ village and we have to demolish it ten years later.” He shook his head.
“In the meantime a retreat came on the market. It was previously used by a Christian outreach group. It has 80 beds in 40 ensuite units, a large dining room and a large training room, so we purchased that on a very short contract. We settled that in the last week in June and on the first week in July we had 40 people come in from Tonga.”
Problems were not confined to regional areas. Billy Gibney, owner of Brisbane’s highly successful Meat at Billy’s retail butchery, reported he has had a six-month staff vacancy advertised with no applications.
“Brisbane is an expensive place to live, and we’ve got to set them up with a lifestyle – that’s something that people don’t think about,” he said.
Mr Nolan detailed a highly successful program at his processing works.
“We’ve had a schools’ program that’s been running for 15 years. They’re high school students, year 10, 11 and 12 coming up to work and they work four hours, two days a week. Cumulatively they can do 12 hours work a week, but we didn’t want to risk that because – if you set someone to work 12 hours and inadvertently they work an hour over – you break the 12-hour limit. We tend to give these students just eight hours work. That keeps them focused on school.”
Currently his company employs 52 students, slightly down on its maximum intake of 62.
A conference attendee who started washing dishes as a 10-year-old said: “Working is a bit like a skill that you learn in itself. We’ve had kids come through our schools’ program that have gone on to become geologists, engineers, accountants, all sorts of things, and I think it has done a wonderful service to the high schools.
“It gives the kids some confidence knowing how they fit into a workplace. There’s nothing better than having kids come out there. And it’s an enormous workforce even if it’s only eight hours a week. So that’s worked well for us.”
The forum also raised other suggested ways to tackle the industry staff shortages including job-sharing, VR education for city-based students, residential trades-training in regional areas for non-academic students and internships for final-year undergrads.