Working in a chocolate factory might sound like the dream job.

But Junee Chocolate and Licorice Factory, near Wagga Wagga in NSW, is struggling to find enough workers in the lead up to Easter, with wait staff, a restaurant manager and a chocolatier needed.

“The whole region is struggling to get workers,” general manager Rhiannon Druce says.

“We used to get 600 to 700 resumes when we posted a job ad, now we’re lucky if we get 10, and only one might show up for the interview.”

It’s a not a problem unique to Junee. The Regional Australia Institute says job ads in country areas are at a record high, with 72,000 regional vacancies across Australia in January.

The institute’s chief economist Dr Kim Houghton told a regional workforce forum on Tuesday that job growth is moving faster than population growth in some regions.

“The clear pattern is that regional employers need people with skills but while vacancies surge, regional employment is lagging,” Dr Houghton said.

The staff shortages are in part caused by the lack of migrant workers flowing to the regions due to border closures, he said.

There is also a trend towards “professionalisation” of the regional workforce, with greater demand for employees with trade qualifications and above.

“We used to think about regional Australia as having lots of low-skilled labour jobs. They’re still there, but they’ve been completely dwarfed by these skilled jobs.”

The newly-appointed regional education commissioner, Fiona Nash, said one of her priorities is building a “homegrown” pool of workers.

“We’re seeing this more and more, that young people who have gone away for education or early work opportunities are very keen to come home and settle in the regions,” Ms Nash said.

“The more we can keep that connection to young people as they’re leaving regional communities, so it’s easy for them to come back, is really important.”

She said if young people can skill up and study in regional areas, they are more likely to stay in those communities to pursue a career.

Dr Houghton said parents and teachers can encourage children to look at opportunities in their home towns to help secure the future of regional workforces.

“Working with Year 10s, Year 8s, Year 6s to ensure that they and their parents know that there are good, well-paying jobs … in the regions is a really important part of widening the labour pool.”

Stephanie Gardiner
(Australian Associated Press)

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