Talent drain as ‘irreplaceable’ workers flee tourism jobs
Tourism bosses fear losing an entire generation of experience as workers desert the industry for better job security.
The giant strides made in recent years to convince school leavers that tourism is a genuine career path are at risk of being wiped out as skilled workers ranging from dive masters to marine engineers contemplate career changes with the looming end of the JobKeeper program.
Tourism traditionally accounts for one in nine Queensland jobs and already, thousands of skilled tourism workers have been lost to the industry, with predictions that up to 25,000 more could lose their jobs in the fallout from the end of the JobKeeper program.
The flow-on effect is expected to further cripple tourism operators even when large-scale travel numbers return, with a predicted severe shortfall of skilled workers to fill positions in the recovery effort.
Queensland Tourism Industry Council CEO Daniel Gschwind said the loss of experienced workers would be an 'Achilles heel' for the sector as it tries to ride out the pandemic.
"This skills migration out of our industry is exactly what we have been afraid of," he said.
"You're seeing out-of-work pilots driving buses around Sydney.
"We are seriously concerned about losing the kind of people who are essentially irreplaceable.
"Already, since things started opening up again, there are over 1000 chef and kitchen jobs that are unfilled, not to mention the 250,000 backpackers who would normally be here on working holidays to fill thousands of positions across the industry in cities and regions right across Queensland."
Cairns is a virtual ground zero for the crisis, with tourism one of the region's most crucial job creators.
The iconic Skyrail cableway has been running only three-to-four days a week since emerging from lockdown last year and General Manager Richard Berman-Hardman said keeping staff would be vital for the recovery.
"We've made a commitment to keep all our people on whatever they were on (before COVID hit), but it's hard to say 'don't go anywhere'," he said.
"Tourism is not seen as a safe career option at the moment.
"And that is going to have consequences moving forward because, as one example, a position like a cableway operator takes six-to-eight months to train."
Tony Baker, the managing director of the Quicksilver Group of reef and island excursions, said most staff were receiving some form of JobKeeper and continued government support was needed 'to survive'.
"If you've only got two diesel fitters, it's very hard to lose one and it's hard for your people to just sit around and wait for things to improve.
"We've lost some wonderful people.
"You're losing a lot of experience, and once someone is lost to the industry, you might not get them back.
"Anything that encourages visitors is great, but we still need some form of ongoing wage subsidy."
Whitewater rafting guide Steve Harris has worked in the tourism industry for 27 years and said while he was fortunate to have relative job security for the time being, many of his friends and colleagues were facing an uncertain future when the JobKeeper supplement expires.
"It will affect a lot of people in the industry," he said.
"Friends with families and mortgages, they have already had to look at other industries.
"Tourism is a real lifestyle job.
"You do it because you're passionate about it and you love being outdoors.
"You've now got tourism people who have been in it their whole careers who are applying for jobs in offices or warehouses."
Experience Co was already undergoing a major restructure before the arrival of the pandemic with the company shedding almost half its workforce across Australia and New Zealand.
The timing has the group better positioned than most to emerge from the pandemic, according to CEO John O'Sullivan, the former boss of Tourism Australia and one of the industry's shrewdest thinkers.
"All of us have done it pretty hard," he said.
"But a lot of other businesses are doing it tougher than we are.
"The industry will bounce back so we don't see any more significant job losses and we want to be ready to capitalise when it does."
Staff vital to gorge
An ancient people in an ancient place.
As traditional owners of the Mossman Gorge in the steaming heart of Tropical North Queensland, the Kuku Yalanji carry with them thousands of years of stories of one of Australia's most spectacular rainforest regions.
The knowledge passed down through generations has become an invaluable tool for the local Indigenous men and women who serve as guides at the Mossman Gorge Centre with Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia.
With its government ownership structure, Voyages has been fortunate to emerge from COVID without major job losses and will even return to peak workforce numbers during the coming busy Easter period.
Voyages CEO Matt Cameron-Smith said the wealth of knowledge held by employees was a vital part of the attraction for visitors.
"It (their experience and knowledge) is such an important part of the fabric of the business, which is why it is so important to retain the staff," he said.
"What they bring to the Dreamtime walks and the welcome to country is that authentic experience that visitors really value.
"We did do stand-downs (during COVID), but not lay-offs, so we're delighted we were able to retain our staff."
He said business had suffered a 70 per cent drop in visitor numbers during the worst of the pandemic, but was now trading at 40-50 per cent of usual capacity.
"Tourism is the lifeblood of this region and it's part of the brand of Australia," he said.
"It's worthy of support from all levels of government because our capacity won't return to normal until international borders reopen."
Skip Lafragua is one of the group's most experienced guides, with more than 20 years' experience in the tourism industry and feels a sense of pride in sharing his knowledge with visitors to the gorge.
Originally published as Talent drain as 'irreplaceable' workers flee tourism jobs