Concerns over employee shortages tempers economic optimism for some after NT Budget

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Business is blossoming for Darwin florist Samantha Perry, who says her industry has fared well during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The event side of things have gone down … but gift-giving has gone up,” she said.

The optimism for Ms Perry, however, has been stifled by a key hurdle many Top End businesses are now experiencing: an employee shortage.

After placing recruitment adds online, Ms Perry is struggling to find qualified florists to join her business.

“11,000 people looked at the ad and only one applied,” she said.

“And she was from Queensland and she still can’t come over here.

“It’s just extremely hard to find qualified capable staff.

“I’m not quite sure why that’s the way it is. But it’s not just our industry.”

For Ms Perry, attracting more employees to the Northern Territory was something she hoped to be addressed in the latest NT Budget, released on Monday.

“They need to focus not just on the hospitality sector. There are so many industries in Darwin that are struggling for staff,” she said.

Spruiking his Budget, Chief Minister Michael Gunner announced significant improvements to the NT’s (still debt-laden) balance sheet — improvements driven largely off the back of a re-energised national economy.

The hospitality industry, as highlighted by Ms Perry, did receive a boost, with the NT government announcing $2 million this financial year to help the hospitality and tourism industries attract much-needed workers.

A total of $120 million over two years has also been set aside for a Local Jobs Fund to provide concessional loans and equity finance to small and emerging businesses.

But Ms Perry believes the government could be doing more.

Looking at bringing in more qualified staff from overseas, giving grants to bring up people even just for the dry. Looking at the accommodation they had out at Inpex and utilising that … to help the labour force in Darwin,” she said.

Worker shortage hitting construction

Neil Sunners, the managing director of Darwin construction company SunBuild, is also looking to expand his workforce.

Mr Sunners had to suspend the construction on a complex of 92 apartments in Nightcliff in 2016 and lay off 55 staff due to Darwin’s sputtering economy.

He’s now only back to just over half the workers he once had, and is hoping the Darwin economy, and his business, is about to hit a period of growth.

“I’m confident the town will turn but it’s definitely taking a little bit longer than we thought originally,” he said.

To grow his business and attract the workers he needs to finish the apartments, Mr Sunners said it would be a “challenge” to attract the necessary workers.

“We definitely have to go back now through a growing period. We have got to bring resources back in,” he said.

“That’s going to have a little bit of influx in the cost of doing things as well too because to encourage people back you’ve got to pay a little bit more than what they’re getting down south.”

Meanwhile, Ms Perry also fears Darwin’s acute rental squeeze, which has seen vacancy rates drop to less than 1 per cent and could be alleviated by projects like SunBuild’s paused development, is hurting the efforts of businesses to attract interstate staff.

“If they can’t find accommodation and be settled, or … if their quality of life is affected because of what they’re paying in rent, what’s the point of moving?” she said.

In a Budget measure earmarked to help satisfy the demand for short to mid-term housing demand in the Top End, the NT government announced $15 million over five years for new land releases, including the creation of 5,000 residential lots in two new Palmerston suburbs, Holtze and Kowandi.

But until she can get more help in her shop, Ms Perry is concerned.

“If we don’t get a qualified florist, I’m not sure what we’ll be able to do in regards to staying open,” she said.

Pay freeze will turn away workers: CPSU

The NT government’s latest budget has come under fire from the Community and Public Sector Union, which has lamented a continuing pay freeze on public service wages.

The CPSU’s NT secretary Kay Densley said the continuation of the policy will force public service workers to leave the Territory in search of better pay elsewhere.

“Public sector workers are telling us they are considering leaving the Territory if this goes ahead … a reduction in NT wages across the board will not attract the workers and population growth that we need,” she said.

The Northern Territory Council of Social Service (NTCOSS) also took aim at the Budget for what it said was the government’s failure to address homelessness in the NT.

“There have been some significant oversights in this budget, in particular for housing services,” NTCOSS chief executive Deborah Di Natale said.

“We would like to see an increase in public housing. We know, for example, if you live in Palmerston, that list is four years long. So you are on a waiting list for four years if you are living rough. That is just not acceptable.

“We also know that in the Territory you are 12 times more likely to be homeless than if you live in any other state or Territory, so this is a matter that should have been a priority for our government.”

By Steve Vivian and Isabel Moussalli (Original ABC Article)