When Cris quit her well-paying film and television industry job to move to Byron in the early 2000s, she knew finding regular work would be a challenge.
But the talented young woman didn’t expect that, more than a decade on, she’d be facing the prospect of having to leave town due to a lack of consistent work.
For years, Cris rode the seasonal roller coaster of Byron’s tourist-driven job market – working over summer, but struggling to survive for the rest of the year.
Now she’s contemplating greener employment pastures.
‘I love living here – this is my home,’ she says.
‘But if I can’t generate the income to pay the rent then it’s a no brainer.’
Cris’s story is all too familiar for many in Byron Shire.
Thousands of locals are engaged in a nearly constant battle to generate enough regular income in a job market which is dominated by part-time jobs in tourism, hospitality and retail.
New figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that Byron Shire has the lowest proportion of people working full-time of any local government area in NSW.
Just 42 per cent of working locals are hitting the 38-hour mark, well below the state average of 59.2 per cent.
At the same time, we have one of the highest rates of part-time work in the state, with 45 per cent of employed people in this category.
And more than a third of these part-timers are working just 15 hours a week or less – barely enough to pay the rent given the region’s ongoing affordability crisis.
A major Sydney newspaper recently declared that the small number of Byron residents working 40 hours or more each week was simply a reflection of our ‘laid back attitude’ to work.
And it’s true that there has long been a pilgrimage of people moving here with the intention to ‘work less and surf more’.
Tony Davies, the chief executive of local community services organisation, Social Futures, believes the figures include a significant number of these ‘sea and tree changers’.
‘You’ve got people selling their house in Sydney for $2m and buying a house in Mullumbimby for $800,000 and living on the leftovers supplemented by a small amount of work,’ Mr Davies says.
‘There’s also an older demographic in parts of Byron – people who are retired or semi-retired.’
But as Mr Davies acknowledges, it’s not all pina coladas and organic bananas.
A significant proportion of Byron residents are struggling to get enough regular work to consistently pay the rent and keep food on the table.
The manager of the Mullumbimby & District Neighbourhood Centre, Julie Williams says many of the people making use of the centre’s emergency relief programs are employed part-time.
‘There is an assumption that people who access emergency relief are all unemployed,’ Ms Williams says.
‘But a very large percentage of the people seeking assistance are working between 12 and 20 hours a week.’
The median weekly income in Byron for families and individuals is about 30 per cent below that for the rest of NSW, according to the ABS figures.
‘One of the things that concerns me is the perception that Byron is an affluent community, when there are really significant, high levels of disadvantage,’ Ms Williams says.
‘It cuts across all demographics – it’s not just young men or older women or single mothers. And it’s not just the unemployed.’
New jobs needed
Jane Laverty, the head of the local chapter of the NSW Business Chamber says underemployment is a ‘massive issue’ in Byron and the Northern Rivers more generally.
She believes the answer is more ‘export jobs’.
‘We need businesses to set up here and produce products which they then export out of the local area,’ she says.
‘It means you’ve got more consistent demand for employment and there’s money flowing consistently into the local economy.’
She says that to encourage this type of investment, the region needs to develop its ‘third world infrastructure’ and improve training opportunities.
Yet Byron is definitely not suffering from a shortage of people with qualifications.
The ABS figures show that nearly a quarter of all locals over the age of 15 have at least a Bachelor degree, and a further 26 per cent of locals have some other tertiary qualification.
Yet, despite the qualified people who need work, some employers are struggling to find the staff they need.
The most glaring example is the current shortage of experienced, qualified chefs.
Ingrid Johansen, the business relationships manager at local recruitment company ETC, says local employers are struggling to find and retain chefs.
‘I think people going into the industry need to have some skills to survive and need to know before they start that they will be required to work weekends and split shifts. It’s not going to be like Master Chef,’ Ms Johansen says.
However, Mr Davies says there are a few flickers of light on the horizon.
‘Thanks to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, disability services is becoming a major employer,’ he says.
‘Regional NSW alone will need 20,000 new workers under the scheme,’ he said.
A growing number of locals are also bypassing the limitations of Byron’s job market by selling their products and peddling their skills online.
‘The people of this region are creative and resourceful and they’re finding innovative ways of making a living, especially as connectivity [via the internet] increases,’ Mr Davies says.
Cris is among those who want to jump off the seasonal jobs merry-go-round by starting her own business.
‘I have always put my heart and soul into my work and would definitely do so if I was running my own business,’ she says. ‘It would be great to earn enough so that I can stay here and maybe even start putting a little bit away.’