Growing resilient river communities through workforce development

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Across the Goulburn, Murrumbidgee and Murray River regions, a resounding emphasis on growing resilient communities and businesses is evident.

With a focus on irrigation, innovative farming and developing plans to tackle fluctuations in water usage and associated funding, workforce planning needs to be cost-effective, and leverage allocated Government funding.

Through this funding, a focus on sustainable job creation with high regional retention rates must be achieved.

All three river areas are a part of farming districts, with a high number of employees operating under a 417 visa.

Through a survey, employers said high turnover rates were a concern, especially in the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan areas.  The survey which focused on interviewing farmers and employers in the cotton industry around the river areas suggested that nearly three-quarters of the workforce were entry-level.

Due to a lack of experience and no prior work with cotton, mismatched skills and incongruence of expectations of working in the field, farmers expressed these as reasons for more than 42% turnover rates in the last year.  They also stated a need for access to more experienced workers.

The survey also alluded to a potentially unhealthy work culture contributing to poor retention rates. The idea of working hard and ‘into the night’ was seen as admirable, and workplace attitudes seemed to suggest that colleagues would perceive workers as ‘weak’ if they didn’t work a full 12 hour day.

For some workers, this was a thriving environment for them to be in, however not all workers (many of them casual backpackers and travellers) were able to adapt to the long hours and physically demanding work.

River areas have found post school qualification completion to be lower than capital city areas. 48% of workers in the Goulburn-Murray-Ovens area had no post school qualification, compared to 39% in Melbourne.  Common work required for the area is labour-intensive with long hours, so this is often desired over skilled workers.

In contrast, the Murrumbidgee Shire Council outlined in a review that the Council were lacking expertise in staff, resulting in a lack of implementation of strategic plans for the community.

Potential strategies and solutions

Strengthening relationships and developing effective communication strategies between workforce stakeholders and water ministers will enable better workforce planning outcomes while working towards the mitigation of flood and drought damage.

Retention strategies should be implemented into a workforce plan for river areas using local resources and knowledge.  This can be done through engaging local industry leaders, understanding employer’s workforce needs and designing regional workforce action plans that are practical.

“The five most frequently mentioned retention strategies by survey respondents were: saying thank you; paying above award; giving an employee responsibility for a geographical area; being flexible about working hours; and recruiting people who live locally.  As these are typical strategies, those not using them may not be as competitive.” – Lachlan & Murrumbidgee Production Valleys Case Study, 2013.

A similar approach to the Robinvale Workforce Development Strategy which was implemented in 2014 may be suitable for these areas.  The Robinvale Workforce Development Strategy adopted the following strategies-

  • An employee position analysis, which rated qualification-to-position suitability and match.
  • Implementing specific skills development suitable for the area (e.g. specific farming skills).
  • Developing a new set of basic skills – designing programs around entry level requirements.
  • Regional Workforce Recruitment & Retention – Australian Apprenticeships (including School Based); Coaching and mentoring for new and existing employees; Recognition of Prior Learning for the existing workforce; VET in Schools programs linked to entry level skills; Work experience/placement program like Work Inspiration.

To gain assistance in developing a workforce development plan specific to your regional area, contact Wendy Perry, Head Workforce Planner at Workforce BluePrint –


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