Attracting and retaining skilled and professional staff in remote locations

Labour supply Skilled workforce Rural and remote communities F H McKenzie collection Australia

Attracting and retaining skilled and professional staff is a problem not limited to remote, or even rural and regional locations in Australia. There is strong evidence to suggest that it is increasingly a global problem and organisations throughout the world are seeking innovative strategies to attract and develop new talent and develop other strategies to retain that talent. The attraction and retention of skilled and professional staff to a community is critical if it is to remain vibrant and self-sufficient, and hence able to sustain itself into the future.

Attracting skilled and professional staff to Australian remote conditions has not been made easier by the Australian government policies which have been oriented to stringent neo-liberal economic policy for the last three decades. This has meant that services and infrastructure have been rationalised based on efficiency rather than equity. The under-provision of infrastructure is a hallmark of non-metropolitan Australia and its lack both pushes people out of communities and turns people off going there for any length of time. It was apparent in this project that attraction and retention strategies continually fall to community and industry groups.

The first two sections contextualise this report. Of particular concern is the dearth of appropriate training opportunities and facilities for people living in remote locations. Attaining skills requires educating and training in non-remote locations which is potentially disruptive, expensive and even frightening for those who have never left their community. Section 3 addresses jobs and career opportunities in remote locations and identifies a number of positive strategies that are being utilised by a number of organisations to successfully attract and retain skilled and professional staff to remote locations; in particular health, education, police, mining and community workers. The absence of these services in a community is often the cause of potential employees resisting taking a job in a remote location. In addition, the inadequacy of taxation incentives, issues of social isolation and lack of career development opportunities are highlighted.

Housing was found to be a key determinant for attraction and retention of skilled and professional staff and their families. Section 4 focuses on the importance of housing and appropriate accommodation in what are often harsh environmental conditions. Housing in remote locations is often old or ‘transient’, expensive to maintain, lacking in aesthetic character, inappropriate for the climatic conditions and often in short supply. Appropriate housing for Aboriginal employees is also an enduring problem that thwarts employment opportunities in remote places.

This research found that the provision of adequate utilities such as power, telecommunications and water was also important. Section 5 discusses the challenges of providing essential services to a sector of the population which has, in all likelihood, been educated and employed, at least for some time, in an urban setting and therefore has city-centric expectations in a remote setting. Government has encouraged industry to invest in towns where they conduct business and there has been significant infrastructure developed from government/private/community partnerships. However those towns and communities with no significant industry are least likely to attract infrastructure and are therefore least attractive to newcomers.

Section 6 addresses specific lifestyle and community trends in remote locations. The demographic data that describe remote locations of Australia are unlike other regions. Generally, there are more men than women, the median age is younger and there is greater chance of mortality in remote locations. It is accepted that it is not possible to compete with urban expectations and that there are other, unique and often very appealing, features of remote locations that are not well known, and therefore not appreciated. This section considered how remoteness impacts on men, women, young people and Aboriginal people. It is clear that a welcoming community that embraces newcomers and is tolerant of change is likely to not only attract new people to town, but that those people are likely to stay, or return after going away for whatever reason. The residents become the community’s marketing instruments.

Successful strategies for the attraction and retention of professional and skilled staff revolved around giving potential residents a ‘suck it and see’ experience. For example, the collaboration of the University Department of Rural Health in New South Wales with the medical training program in Broken Hill requires that doctors have block experience of several months in the town. Many of the myths and less than congenial image of remote towns and remote service are ‘busted’ by the diverse medical experience, the warm welcome given the visitors and the varied social experiences offered by a remote community.

A number of organisations and government agencies are working to improve the preparation and specific training provided to staff before staff are sent to a remote posting or location. This includes better cultural training and improved support networks both in the location and with head office.

‘Growing your own workforce’ also has potential, particularly for Aboriginal people. It is important however that there are opportunities for Aboriginal to work and to have appropriate training and educational opportunities that enable them to compete when work opportunities arise. For example, the mining industry presents a diversity of work opportunities for Aboriginal people but unless their numeracy and literacy skills are of standard that they can be trained, the opportunities go begging. ‘Growing your own workforce’ is not limited to Aboriginal people. Mentoring young people who live in a remote community, keeping in touch with them when they go away for university or secondary school education through newsletters and e-links, providing vacation work when they have university or school holidays and ‘talking up’ the opportunities of the region makes an impression that adults often overlook. Financial incentives are effective lures used by some industries and the public sector to attract and retain employees in remote locations. However, not every business is able to offer financial incentives and the practice is not sustainable.

There are other practices that could be effective that have been overlooked. For example, remote experience is likely to give an employee a diversity and depth of experience which is useful and highly adaptable in a variety of work conditions. Too often, remote experience is discounted rather than valued by employers. Promotion opportunities should be offered for remote experience. Similarly, remote service often comes at a financial cost, so taxation benefits, district allowances and financial support by government should be a priority. The cost of living and re-location expenses should reflect the true monetary cost of working in a regional area. Finally, remote and desert Australia is diverse. There is no best answer. Financial incentives alone will not achieve long term employee tenure in remote communities, and social incentives alone cannot be sustained in a tight economic and employment market. While the word ‘partnership’ is over-used, it was very evident that government recognition of its responsibility to the needs of remote communities which is equally matched by corporate sector investment and community commitment is likely to reap long term benefits and a sustainable future. However, without that mutual and equal commitment, the attraction and retention of a professional and skilled workforce in remote locations will remain a significant challenge.

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