The Wide Bay Burnett region about three hours’ drive north of Brisbane has mastered the art of keeping skilled workers after industries shut by gaining new employers. It is also trying to recruit people, including students and grey nomads, to help industry and farmers deal with shortages due to Covid border closures.

Its city of Maryborough has lost its MSF Sugar mill and about 75 jobs this year after 126 years of operation but it is keeping its Downer train manufacturer and gaining a defence artillery-shell factory being built by a partnership between Germany’s Rheinmetall and Brisbane small-arms company NIOA.

MSF Sugar was forced to shut its mill at Maryborough by a broad decline in the sugar industry and falling cane supply in that region – but one reason for that was Rural Funds Management’s purchase of 5409 ha of MSF Sugar’s cane land for planting with lucrative macadamia nuts.

The director of regional development for Wide Bay Burnett, Scott Rowe, says the mill closure “could have knocked the confidence out of the region. But the munitions facility, the venture with Rheinmetall, has been a really positive thing and gained national and international interest.’’

Rowe, who manages the local agency of Regional Development Australia, says the majority of mill workers were picked up not only by local manufacturers but also the munitions facility.

“Our region also has three major meatworks, and the Swickers Kingaroy Bacon Factory is the largest pork-processing facility in the southern hemisphere.’’

Maryborough currently has the lowest rental vacancies in Queensland, and our meatworks are having to buy up houses to try to attract and retain workers, he says.

“We are also the largest softwood producer in Queensland and our timber workers are putting in 24/7 just to keep up.’’

The region, which includes Bundaberg, Kingaroy and Hervey Bay, already has a diverse economy with health care and social assistance the highest employer so in a way Covid helped keep jobs, Rowe says.

“Agriculture, food and beverage manufacturing have really held on. But tourism, hospitality, retail – like everywhere else – have been knocked around,” he says.

“Water will always be the greatest issue for regional Queensland, but workforce is probably No.2 at the moment.

“Our citrus crops have only been picked once instead of twice this season due to the shortage; workforce is a real problem.

“An aircraft manufacturer in Hervey Bay is trying to get people in from overseas. The Kingfisher Bay Resort on Fraser Island is operating at 70 per cent capacity due to an inability to attract workforce.

“We’re trying to close the gap by putting in regional jobs committees that are working with industry, and helping forecast what they’re going to require in skilled labour. TAFEs and training centres and universities are collaborating to try to close that gap.

“We’re even trying to get school kids to get friends together in holidays and pick fruit, and getting grey nomads up and into caravan parks and put a bit of jingle in their pocket to help with the [farm] pick. They’re trying everything they can but we need those overseas workers and tourists back.’’

Source :