The $150k jobs no Australians want


High-paying jobs with stacks of benefits, including free accommodation and a car, are going unfilled by fickle Australians.

Even those with few skills could be on $80k a year with $150,000 not unusual for those in management roles.

That's the view of farming bosses who are crying out for employees.

But an assumption people will be bent over picking fruit and batting away flies means many are loathe to give it a go.

"I don't know why the government has so many people on the dole when there are so many farming jobs out there," said former Tigerair pilot Matt Shepherd, who is about to head off for a few months in Queensland, harvesting crops from the comfort of an airconditioned cab.

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Sam Heagney, a farm manager at South Bunarba Agriculture at Mungindi, in southern Queensland.
Sam Heagney, a farm manager at South Bunarba Agriculture at Mungindi, in southern Queensland.

The coronavirus pandemic couldn't have come at a worse time for Australia's agriculture industry.

After years of drought, the rains have delivered a bumper crop. But COVID-19 means the drought is now in manpower as legions of backpackers and other foreign workers have all but dried up.

Industry body the National Farmers Federation (NFF) has launched a campaign called "Back on Track" to show how farmers are attempting to overcome the challenges of COVID-19.

In July, the NFF said agriculture could run out of workers this year.

"Even when our social security payment for the dole was $550 a fortnight, we couldn't get people off the couch to go and pick fruit," agriculture minister David Littleproud said at the time.

"There's a real aversion from the Australian workforce to go and pick."

Since then, the closure of internal borders has further exacerbated the problem of closed international frontiers.

It comes at the same time as unemployment has been rising across Australia as a whole. It had been bubbling around 5.2 per cent for all of last year and then shot up to 7.5 per cent in July before falling slightly to 6.8 per cent in August.

Yet the sector is brimming with job vacancies for harvesters, agronomists, machine technicians, spray rig operators and more, the NFF has stated.

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Sam Heagney is a farm manager at South Bunarba Agriculture at Mungindi on the Queensland - New South Wales border.

The farm, about 100kms north west of Moree, grows wheat, barley, chick peas and cattle.

It usually has about 10 full time staff but during the winter harvest, kicking in now, it needs up to six times that number, he told Fruit and veggie farms might need hundreds of extra staff to pick the crop.

"It's always difficult to find good people but this year it's been heightened by coronavirus and the lack of backpackers.

"There are plenty of jobs and it's not all necessarily picking, it can be quite high tech. The image of someone in a flannelette shirt holding a pitchfork is not what farming is now," he said.

"You don't even need a high skill level. If they have a good attitude and are willing to work and learn new skills, that's a great start."

And it could be quite a lucrative little earner, Mr Heagney said.

"An entry level farm hand could be looking at $60,000-$80,000 a year. And it's all upwards from there with a manager of a property on $100,000-$150,000.

"On top of that you get housing, many get a vehicle, and we have high speed internet on the farm so we can watch Netflix quicker than the city; no problems there."

Nonetheless, Mr Heagney said it was still a "struggle" to attract people to farming. He hoped that the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic may broaden some people's career horizons.

View from the office window.
View from the office window.


In the meantime, the industry was having to get creative to fill roles.

One way of doing that was by hiring commercial airline pilots laid off by the likes of Qantas and Virgin.

Although aviation and agriculture might seem like a world apart, Mr Heagney insisted the industries had very similar skill sets, particularly when it came to driving huge harvesters.

"Pilots are used to operating big expensive machinery with high levels of automation. It's essentially systems management and that's what our machinery needs too.

"They sit there, in airconditioning, operating a computer. It's basically autopilot; the only difference is they don't have hosties bringing them cups of tea."

The harvest at South Bunarba will go for four weeks or so and then many of the staff operating the equipment will move off to another farm to do the same job until the season ends in January.

Former Tigerair pilot Matt Shepherd who is about to go into farming
Former Tigerair pilot Matt Shepherd who is about to go into farming


Mr Shepherd was laid off from Virgin Australia's low cost off - shoot Tigerair in April, after 30 years piloting with airlines from the UK to Indonesia.

"Ordinarily people would just get another flying job but they're having to look into other areas. There are heaps of people from aviation just wandering around needing jobs."

But it wasn't easy for pilots to pick up work, the Tweed Heads local told

"My only qualifications are flying aeroplanes. So I can do that, or Uber. You even have to be a certified to be a barista these days, it's crazy."

Then he noticed farming jobs popping up on websites and Facebook pages usually reserved for pilots. He's now about to set out on a tour of Queensland operating harvesters for the next few months.

"Farming isn't my forte but I'm looking forward to finding out more about it and learning.

"They need people who can operate complex machinery with lots of moving parts. If you're competent, trainable and responsible, you could be in," he said.

"You could be working overnight but that's part of the deal with being an airline pilot too."

The pay was "not bad," he said, although not what he was used too.

"I've been quoted $30 an hour. It's not airline money by any stretch of the imagination, but it's certainly more than I'm getting at the moment. Anything beats zero," he laughed.

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Sam Heagney (right) with some of the staff at the farm.
Sam Heagney (right) with some of the staff at the farm.

Mr Heagney said the workforce was becoming more diverse due to the downturn.

"We have everything from an 18-year-old school leaver to a semi-retired grey nomad who's driving trucks."

He encouraged people to give it a shot, even if living in the country wasn't their eventual aim.

"A stint on a farm could give someone the grounding for a career in agriculture which could be city-based, such as a scientist developing new wheat varieties or a fresh produce marketer, or a whole host of other avenues.

"If you're in a pickle there are plenty of jobs here in agriculture. Everyone has to eat and we're definitely not having a downturn."

Originally published as $150k jobs no Australians want

He was laid off when Tiger’s owner Virgin went bust.
He was laid off when Tiger’s owner Virgin went bust.

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