Seasonal Workforce – who, where, how, why? In our final article in the series, we break down the different groups of people you are likely to encounter in the national labour pool.
If you consider the varying characteristics of each, you can increase your chances of attracting and retaining them as workers for your busy season.
In this series of articles, we have provided information on how to entice workers to your seasonal job, how to get the best out of them and how to retain the good ones. Maybe it is all common sense, but taking a little time to think about recruiting, and putting good ideas into action, can relieve some of the stress of harvest and other peak labour times.
To finalise the series, we have divided the available labour pool for seasonal work into different cohorts of people. Each has diverse characteristics and desires, and understanding the differences may improve success for your seasonal workforce.
Working Holiday Makers (WHMs), usually known as backpackers, mainly undertake farm work to qualify to stay longer in Australia. For most, their initial visa only allows them to stay one year but they can earn a second year by working three months (often referred to as 88 days) in a regional area, and a third year by working six months (176 days) in their second year. To qualify, the work must be in a ‘specified industry’, and farm work is most commonly chosen.
It is important to realise that most backpackers only do this work to qualify for the extra year. While some will do so for the experience, to follow friends or to fund their holiday, for most it is only a ‘means to an end’ – to complete the mandatory days of work required in order to apply for a visa extension and stay longer in Australia.
If you are a switched-on employer, you will realise that if you can keep a backpacker for the full three months it will be much better than replacing them after only a few weeks. Their aim will be to get through the 88 days – what they earn will be secondary. So, they will place high value on having a good time, working with like-minded people and enjoying their experience. They will be quickly turned off by poor treatment. Yelling, swearing and attempting to goad them to go faster is unlikely to be successful. Patient explanation and ‘teach by showing’, while more time-consuming (and possibly frustrating), is more likely to yield the results needed. Assist them to succeed and everybody wins.
Backpackers are prolific on social media so a good experience, or a bad one, will be shared with the world, including other potential employees.
Retirees who spend their time travelling around Australia are affectionately known as ‘Grey Nomads’. Don’t assume grey nomads are too old to be of value. Some will only be in their 50’s, in part-retirement, and even if they are older, individual fitness is a better indicator of value.
Reliability is the number one attribute you need, with experience and initiative closely following. Someone with a long work history is far more likely to appreciate your needs rather than focussing on themselves. They know that turning up to work on time every day is almost as important as the actual work performed. But be aware they are likely to understand their rights and not accept short-cuts.
Older workers have experience of life, and it is not uncommon for them to have tractor driving skills, forklift licences, or experience in useful tasks such as welding or mechanics. An older worker who no longer has the stamina to do heavy physical work may be quite capable of undertaking many other essential tasks.
Many jobs in horticulture are mentally rather than physically demanding. Spending all day sorting in a shed, or performing administrative tasks, need mental acuity rather than being physically fit. So, age may be less of an issue for this type of worker.
Grey nomads are more interested in the experience rather than total earnings, and some may even want to limit their working hours to avoid impacting their pension. They will be keen to engage in conversation, sharing experiences, and the social exchange with others like them. For many their real desire is for a nice place to set up their van and relax for a few weeks or months, just craving a nice grassy spot with power. Many don’t even need an ablution block – most modern vans are fully self-contained.
Grey nomads also engage on social media, but likely on older platforms like Facebook, or traditional travel clubs. And although they may not have a fixed period like 88 days in mind, they won’t want to hang around too long. But if you have a good relationship with them, they are likely to show loyalty by staying around until the season ends. Some also establish their own ‘harvest trails’ where they return for the busy season each year to favoured properties. Smart employers treat these experienced staff like gold!
With well over 500,000 international students in Australia in 2023, even if just a small percentage of these are interested in farm work, it is a cohort well worth considering.
A recent increase in the number of hours that someone on a student visa can undertake compared to the pre-COVID limit, means an international student can now work up to 48 hours per fortnight compared to the previous 40. And of course, during semester breaks there is no limit.
However, most students will be studying in metropolitan areas which restricts their availability. Most will only be interested in work during their breaks if low-cost accommodation is available near the work, and few will have their own transport.
Where there is a university campus in a regional area, students are more likely to be available. Simply arranging a fee-for-service shuttle bus to the farm could be rewarding.
Once students have experience with a particular crop or task, their speed will be a feature. This makes them a desirable cohort, at least for the time you have got them. Fortunately, the summer season peak coincides with the long semester break, so the student cohort can fill an important gap.
Aussies could be broken into several sub-groups including long-term seasonal workers and migrants. Of course, grey nomads are mostly Australian and we haven’t touched on local high school students in their holidays. But for simplicity we will keep it to just two groups.
Australia has often been described as a country of migrants, and newcomers will take jobs others choose not to, because they are looking for opportunities. The issues of language and unrecognised skills or qualifications are not barriers for most seasonal farm work. Learning on-the-job is the norm, and reliability and productivity are the characteristics in demand. So long as an individual can follow instructions and safety rules, they will be considered.
The challenge with migrants is to entice them from the cities where they settle, to regional areas where the work is located. Some will attach themselves to a labour hire team, trusting someone from their own cultural background who runs the gang.
To be successful enticing migrants, the key is a welcoming attitude and assistance to find both accommodation and community connections. Religious bodies and sporting codes are great ways to make newcomers feel accepted, with both featuring common ‘languages’. Regardless of whether the work is seasonal or ongoing, if a migrant feels safe and comfortable for themselves and their family, they can develop a high level of loyalty to someone who has provided them an opportunity.
Not all migrants are legally allowed to work in Australia, so it is important for an employer to check their work rights. Fortunately, the Department of Home Affairs has an online portal known as Visa Entitlement Verification Online (VEVO), where an individual’s work rights can be checked for free. Heavy penalties exist for employing workers without work rights.
There is another group of people, more likely to be Australian-born, who choose to do low-skilled, seasonal farm work for a large part of their life. Some do it just because they like doing a physical job and don’t want to be locked into a permanent position. Others because they don’t have the education or ability for a higher-level job. And yet others have a lifestyle for which short bursts of work while constantly moving around fits in.
Seasonal work can often be hard and physically demanding, so a tough character can be the ideal employee. Providing this person with a bit of tolerance and flexibility can be rewarded with a great worker who is likely to be experienced, and who can be highly productive in bursts. These individuals can also be very resourceful at finding local accommodation, even when supply is tight.
One type of migrant worker can be found within the PALM (Pacific Australia Labour Mobility) scheme. Heavily regulated, workers from our Pacific neighbours and East Timor can be brought into Australia for fixed periods of up to nine months. A four-year version of the program is also available.
Although there is a great deal of red-tape well in advance of any workers arriving, and extra costs are incurred with obligations under the scheme, it is an option many horticulture enterprises have taken up. The main advantage is that the workers are committed for the period needed and, in theory, there is no staff turnover. The second benefit is that the workers, once trained and a known quantity, can be requested back in subsequent seasons with confidence.
The program does have limitations. You must plan and gain permissions in advance, well before you know your seasonal start & finish dates. You must ensure enough ongoing work is regularly available to satisfy both the requirement of the program, and to keep the workers happy with good, consistent earnings. In addition, a high standard of accommodation must be provided and approved beforehand, and a level of pastoral care must be available for the workers. None of these things are required for any other work cohort.
Many farms outsource many of the scheme requirements and obligations to an Approved Employer (AE) under a labour hire arrangement. While this adds to the cost, the AE undertakes the significant administrative burden and carries much of the risk.
In ideal circumstances PALM is an excellent program and provides a degree of certainty. However, cost and increasing Government guidelines means it is not for the faint-hearted!
Available now is best!
The best worker is one who is reliable, productive and available now. So those already living in your community are the ideal candidates, so long as they fill those criteria. And using a seasonal job to train up an individual and assess their suitability for a longer-term position is a great way to ‘try before you buy’.
So, when looking for seasonal workers for your horticulture or farm job, be aware that different enticements may be required to attract people from different groups. But regardless what background a potential worker comes from, if they have those magic attributes of reliability and productivity, hold onto them, because replacing them may not be possible.