Sydney, Australia – As residents in Australia’s second largest city flock to restaurants for dinner and drinks, Sarah Dennithorne is considering closing some of her pizzerias over the busy Christmas period.
Since Melbourne exited one of the world’s longest lockdowns in October, Dennithorne, who manages several branches of Sal’s Authentic New York Pizza, has struggled to fill vacancies in the kitchen and front of house.
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Before the pandemic, she could easily receive 100 to 150 applications for every job. These days, she is lucky to get five.
“I’ve managed hospitality businesses in Melbourne for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dennithorne told Al Jazeera.
As Australia emerges from nearly two years of lockdowns and border closures, many small businesses, especially in hospitality and retail, are struggling to find qualified staff, in large part due to the absence of backpackers and international students during the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Australia opened the borders to vaccinated students and migrants for the first time since March 2020 as part of a bid to kick-start the economy and live with COVID-19.
Employment website Seek earlier this month reported that job advertisements in the hospitality and tourism sector rose 76 percent in November compared with the same period last year, while applications per job hit a record low.
The website put the shortage down to “increasing job ad numbers, a smaller talent pool and a nation of workers more conscious of job ad security than ever before”.
In Sydney’s famous Bondi beach, Andrew Anthony, who owns the butchery-turned-restaurant Macelleria Bondi, has been posting job advertisements online for weeks, only to receive few responses – or see those he has managed to recruit fail to show at work.
With the help of his university-aged daughter, Anthony eventually succeeded in recruiting several students as part-timers, yet remains unable to fill all the vacancies.
“It’s been terrible and hopeless,” he said.
Sean Edwards, managing director of industry magazine Cafe Culture International, told Al Jazeera that hospitality businesses were finding that many people had left the industry for good to “go find another job” during the pandemic.
Paul Zahra, CEO of the Australian Retailers Association, told Al Jazeera the retail sector had also been severely hit.
“Many businesses struggled to retain their existing staff through the Delta lockdowns when they couldn’t trade from their physical stores, which left them short-staffed for the reopening and it remains an ongoing challenge two months on,” Zahra said.
Michael Coelli, an economics professor at the University of Melbourne, told Al Jazeera the retail and hospitality sectors, in particular, had become reliant on temporary visa holders.
“There are just not enough workers to do that kind of work,” Coelli said. “The industries that are reasonably large in Australia require a lot of semi-skilled or unskilled people and we just haven’t necessarily had that. Huge numbers of migrants to fill the demand, that’s been going on for a long time.”
Australia lost more than 375,000 migrants due to border closures in the year up to March 2021 alone, according to figures compiled by accounting firm Ernst & Young, with government projections estimating a shortfall of 830,000 people by 2024.
The Treasury has estimated population growth will slow to 0.2 per cent in 2020–21 and 0.4 per cent the following year – the weakest growth in more than 100 years. Fitch Ratings estimated in October that the slowdown in population growth would result in 2 percent smaller gross domestic product by 2026.
Coelli said the recent border reopening was unlikely to alleviate the staff shortages for some time.
“It might take a while for people to be confident of coming to Australia, given why the borders have been shut on very little notice for a while,” he said.
“The industry is just not creating and training enough new workers, and not having enough apprenticeships in those areas.”
Sandy Chong, CEO of the Australian Hairdressing Council, told Al Jazeera that while her industry relied heavily on foreign labour, there was a lack of pathways for migrant workers to stay in Australia permanently.
Chong said there were also not enough apprentices in the industry, even before the pandemic, as many would quit even before finishing their training.
For Dennithorne, the pizzeria owner in Melbourne, it is uncertain whether she will be able to find staff to keep her restaurants open over Christmas. But she is hopeful that workers will come back to the industry after taking some time to recover from the strain of the pandemic.
“I’m hearing from my younger team that people are leaving as they just burnt out over a really hectic past 18 months,” she said.
“I’m hoping that people are just going to take some time off over Christmas, and relax and sort of debrief and have time with family, and then come back to work in the New Year,” she said.