Upper Yarra businesses feeling the pinch of perilous economy

The Alpine Hotel in Warburton has had to close on Mondays and Tuesdays due to staff shortages. Picture: STEWART CHAMBERS 387969_01

By Callum Ludwig

Businesses confidence is at a low ebb throughout Australia and the Upper Yarra is also feeling the pinch.

Staff shortages, high interest rates and increased costs of operation are all having an impact.

A spokesperson for the Warburton Valley Community Economic Development Association (WVCEDA) said what has been fed back to them is that employers say it’s really difficult to recruit staff at all levels of experience within their businesses.

“They’re finding that there is a real lack of skilled and experienced applicants when they do advertise for jobs, and while there are certainly people who are willing to apply in the sense of outside of the immediate region, but what they’re then finding is travel costs or the lack of public transport is problematic,” they said.

“That’s part of their cost of living expenses they have to factor in, the travel to and from work, and our public transport doesn’t always support active moving around,”

“Particularly in hospitality where you might have early starts in cafes or late finishes in pubs, that’s particularly problematic for younger staff as well, or those that don’t have their license and can’t move around easily without the support of public transport.”

In NAB’s Monthly Business Survey for January 2024, business confidence was found to have improved by one point but still ‘remains very weak’, particularly in goods industries.

The Alpine Retreat Hotel in Warburton recently announced that opening hours would be reduced, closing on Mondays and Tuesdays to ease the burden on their understaffed team.

Owner Rachael Northwood said they just cannot get enough chefs to get the coverage of seven days.

“We’re finding it exceptionally hard to recruit being a regional country pub, one of the challenges is we’re surrounded by 300 degrees of bushland, you have to go out all the way to Marysville and Woods Point, or out to Neerim South for anywhere off from our very small corridor,” she said.

“All the young people and skilled labour want to head down the line because there is more family or more nightclubs or more boyfriends and girlfriends,”

Ms Northwood has found it is the ‘middle tier’ of skilled labour proving hard to recruit, the Alpine has apprentices and younger staff as well as head and executive chefs but is struggling to find those that are ready to step in and help staff the kitchen all week long. Responses that have even come through to the decision to reduce hours with offers to join the team have come from individuals looking for senior roles.

Ms Northwood said the objective is to get back to seven days.

“We are offering accommodation but can only offer a single person, not for a family and in that middle layer, they are often at the stage of building relationships, starting a family and building their careers,” she said.

“I think affordable housing is an element of employment for townships like Warburton because there’s a high tourist factor and we’re finding a lot of homes are Airbnb’s and there’s not a lot of share houses around either.”

Yarra Ranges has been one of the safest regions for businesses in recent times. In October 2022, the Yarra Ranges had the lowest risk of insolvency in the country for regions with over 5000 businesses at only 4.81 per cent, according to the CreditorWatch Business Risk Index (BRI).

This has slipped in recent times, with the latest BRI in October 2023 having seen the region slip to ninth and a default rate sitting at 4.26 per cent.

The WVCEDA spokesperson said the tough conditions are being felt by industries across the Upper Yarra, from hospitality to retail to production, and they will do what they can to support other local businesses.

“We’re certainly able to circulate information about job vacancies and connect businesses together when we know about what their needs are,” they said.

“We welcome people to approach us with those needs, we’re not an employment agency by any stretch of the imagination but we do have a feel of what’s going on and we’re happy to support,”

“We also share advice and information about what’s worked for some of our members because there’s obviously opportunities, tips and pointers that might be relevant to other businesses in the region.”