Wind the clock back to March last year, to the moment breweries and venues across Australia shut their doors, and were you to draw up a list of the issues the pandemic was likely to cause you'd probably have come up with a fair few before landing on "skills shortage".
Keg sales vanished, nobody knew when the world would open again, and people in a host of industries were stood down. Now, well over a year on, from both a production and hospitality perspective businesses are struggling to find the right staff to keep beer flowing through the system.
Hop Nation might be a brewery on the rise, and picked up an impressive haul of trophies at the recent Australian International Beer Awards, yet hiring new brewers has been proving a serious challenge. Co-founder Duncan Gibson says a recent recruitment drive for two experienced brewers went on for longer and felt markedly different to past hires.
“I’ve managed to get them now but it was a long and arduous process,” he says.
“At first, I went to a recruiter because that’s worked in the past, and he spent about six weeks and exhausted all his contacts and went, ‘I’m sorry, I’m out. This has never happened before and normally I’d have something to present to you.'.”
Previously, the recruiter had brought in up to ten potential candidates and, once his search failed, Dunc started advertising for the two roles elsewhere. Even then, initially only one person applied and they didn’t have anywhere near the requisite experience.
After advertising for a second time, both positions are now filled, but the process was very different to any other point in their five years of operation to date.
“When we first started,” Duncan says, “we’d put our feelers out and there would be 15 or 20 CVs, and maybe about five of those would have the right qualifications and experience to be able to do the job. But now it’s just nothing.”
Duncan says the cause of staffing issues is multifaceted, pointing to the industry's growth on the one hand and the impact of the global pandemic on the other.
“It’s a hard one because all that training has to catch up with where the industry got to so quickly,” he says.
“I think COVID has impacted it a lot because you don’t get those overseas runs or people moving around as much.”
He says retaining staff can be an issue too, particularly for larger independent brewers. New brewers can build their experience and knowledge at such places before moving to take on a position with greater seniority at a smaller brewing company.
Compared with the wine industry, where he worked with fellow winemaker Sam Hambour before launching Hop Nation, Duncan says rising through the ranks as a brewer tends to happen far quicker. In both his native New Zealand and here in Australia, he says there are significantly more skilled winemakers, which means rising to a top job takes time.
“That progression is slow and long and, comparing it to the beer industry right now, it’s harder to be a winemaker who gets up there,” he says.
“But I feel like, at the end of it, you’re probably a better winemaker because you’ve had to climb this ladder slowly. I think another problem we’re going to have is people [in brewing] who have climbed this ladder too fast.”
Hop Nation are far from alone in facing such travails, with staffing issues raised with The Crafty Pint team by many brewers and business owners in recent months.
Young Henrys co-founder Richard Adamson, who looks after education and people within his role at the Independent Brewers Association (IBA), admits it’s an issue that’s making him nervous.
“It’s going to be an impediment to the growth of the industry,” he says. “If we can’t fill those jobs, we won’t be able to make the beer to grow.”
Part of the IBA’s presentation to the Federal Government when pushing for an increase in the excise rebate pointed to the potential to lift beer from indie brewers from eight to 15 percent of the overall market. It's a fine ambition, but requires a lot of skilled hands joining the industry.
“If we want to get from eight to 15 percent with the help of the excise change then that’s nearly 7,000 jobs for the industry,” Rich says. “Say that’s 2,000 brewers, then that’s a lot of people to train.”
He says there is support – as well as incentives – on a federal level for increasing the training options for brewers, and the IBA is working with various state governments to expand the number of courses on offer.
“It is about getting the states talking with the TAFEs and assisting in that and getting the training up and running," he says. "But we’ve had some success on that front.”
Compared to a few years ago, there are more brewing certificates available across the country, including at the NSW TAFE where Rich teaches, plus a Certificate III course that launched in Queensland last year, and another run by Bendigo TAFE and the Kangan Institute. Those are complemented by more longstanding courses such as those at Federation University in Ballarat and Edith Cowan University in Perth.
While such courses provide practical experience and connect brewers with the industry, they take time to complete and getting brewers to teach them can be a challenge in itself.
“There are only so many I can train,” Rich says. “We do need more teachers.
“It’s hard because everyone is flat out but, if you have the capacity to become a teacher, then do it.”
Rich suggests adding brewing to Australia’s skills shortage visa lists could be a partial solution, but admits bringing people in at this moment in time is far from easy. Given the ongoing disruptions, lockdowns and ever-changing restrictions, it’s hard to know how eager people are to cross state borders let alone fork out for a rare and expensive flight to cross an international one.
“As we progress, it’s going to have be attacked on both sides," Rich says. "It’s going to have to be an import and an education piece.”
Maria Jockel (pictured below) is the legal principal and national leader of BDO Migration Services, with a role that sees her work through Australia’s complex labyrinth of migration laws to bring skilled migrants into the country.
“We’ve got about 3,000 pages of legislation, about 99 visa categories, and they’re underpinned by over 50,000 pages of internal policy guidelines,” she says.
There remain multiple pathways for workers to enter Australia; indeed, since COVID struck, BDO has brought high-end chefs into the country under the Temporary Skill Shortage (visa subclass 482) program.
Maria also points to Designated Area Migration Agreements – these are made between the Federal Government and endorsed employers within certain regions – as providing more opportunities for potential migrants beyond the standard skilled migration program.
“There’s enormous opportunity for the right people, with the right talent, to meet the legal and policy criteria to get into Australia,” she says, while accepting that getting into Australia remains a challenge.
“You’ve got to get an inwards travel exemption and that's a difficulty because, as you know, it’s a hot potato.”
Another approach to overcoming skill shortages may be through the National Skills Commission’s Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List. This aims to fill critical skills required for Australia’s recovery from COVID and Maria says roughly 95 percent of people applying through the priority skilled occupations and critical skills route get approved for inward travel into Australia.
“It’s unfortunately only got about 19 occupations. Unfortunate in the sense that, if your occupation isn’t on it, then it isn’t very helpful to you,” Maria says, while pointing out the National Skills Commission has been willing to work with industries that require more skilled workers.
Skills shortages aren’t just impacting the production side of the beer industry either, with hospitality also feeling the pinch.
In Victoria’s High Country, Bright Brewery have at times closed service in parts of their expansive venue due to a lack of team members required to properly staff them in a COVID-compliant manner, while near neighbours Bridge Road Brewers have trimmed their food menu due to their reduced team. During May's Good Beer Week, owners at some of the venues The Crafty Pint works with said they wouldn't be able to open for the extended hours they normally operate during the festival due to an inability to find enough staff.
In WA’s Margaret River region, Ali Scott-Malcolm, co-owner of Wild Hop Brewing, says that, although they’ve been lucky to have spent most of the past year open, staffing the brewpub remains a continual challenge, pointing to a lack of affordable housing in the area as well as a lack of travelling workers. Traditionally, they’ve relied on the latter to fill extra shifts on weekends, with travellers attracted by the extra income and the social nature of working in a busy brewpub.
“We do try to pay well and take care of our staff as much as we can,” Ali says. “But we need someone to do Saturdays and Sundays, and paying more every hour isn’t going to fill the gap of working five days, which is what locals need: five days in a full-time job.
"So, that’s not really the carrot we need – it’s finding people where those couple of days fits in with their lifestyle."
Ever since they came out of the first lockdown, Ali says their popular brewpub has operated a little differently to pre-COVID.
“We are running a little bit more like a restaurant than we used to,” she says.
“So, when we are short on staff, we can slow it down and limit the amount of people in there to make sure everyone coming in is still getting the right experience. As a business, that hurts the bottom line a little bit but it’s what we’d prefer to do rather than put out a subpar offer.”
The Wild Hop team has considered cutting back from opening seven days a week, something other businesses in the tourism hotspot have done, but feel it would have too much of an impact as they don't sell beer outside their venue.
“We were looking at scaling back to five days trading,” Ali says. “Obviously, that impacts you financially but, aside from that, it really impacts our beer turnover because every pint of beer we sell puts a dent in each batch. Otherwise, it’s sitting around longer and the brewer doesn’t have to brew as often.”
She also figures that if they temporarily closed on Mondays and Tuesdays returning to a full week of service could pose new challenges of its own.
“You have to think about how you reactivate after that,” she says. “If you drop down to five days, then you have to find more team members to go back up to seven and that might not happen.”
Given the region is facing a housing crisis – Ali cites the high number of AirBnBs as making it harder to bring people from Perth to fill positions – and borders don’t look like they’ll open in a hurry, she admits: “There isn’t really a solution.
"The situation is what it is and we’ve been really lucky to be able to trade, but it’s just a challenge and we’ll have to just keep hustling when we need to.”
Back at Hop Nation, the brewery crew is locked in for the time being, with Duncan hoping he doesn't have to hunt for more brewers in the near future while making sure they look after their staff well, not least when it comes to their longstanding production crew.
“We know what they’re worth to us and we are willing to pay them – if someone tries to poach them, we’d just pay them more,” he says.
So, while the industry might be in dire need of more brewers, there is one cohort benefiting from the current climate.
As Duncan puts it: “It’s a good time to be a brewer.”
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If you're a brewer keen to listen to Rich and help train new brewers, Kangan Institute is currently hiring.