Vanuatu-born Mayline Vincic is about to experience her first real winter after a life-changing relocation to Australia's Red Centre, part of a new migrant worker scheme helping to build up regional communities whose workforce was decimated during the pandemic.
"The move was a big change – everything's settling down now and falling into place. I've never experienced winter so this is an exciting new experience," said Vincic of the change from the tropical climes of Vanuatu to the chilly desert nights of Kings Canyon Resort in the Northern Territory.
Vincic is one of more than 20 Vanuatuans to start work at the newly-revamped resort under the Australian government's new worker visa program, the Pacific Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme.
"It's a great opportunity to come to Australia and work here – we can earn a lot more than at home," said Vincic, who previously worked in resorts in Vanuatu. "This is a way that I can support my family. I've made plans to stay here for the initial six months of this contract, but I'm hoping to return [to Australia to work] in the future."
The consolidated scheme, which replaces the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme, lets residents from 10 countries in Timor-Leste and the Pacific apply for longer working visa periods of up to four years, with greater workforce stability.
The government has additionally removed recruitment caps for eligible Australian employers, following a huge surge in regional job vacancies during the pandemic.
In April 2022, there were still more than 84,000 regional job vacancies, according to data from the Regional Australia Institute (RAI).
Grant Wilckens, founder and CEO of G'Day Group Holdings who manage Kings Canyon Resort, is a huge proponent of the PALM program. Since the pandemic, staffing shortages and an absence of backpackers has hit regional operators hard.
"Without that volume of workers in the market, there aren't enough Australians willing to fill those job gaps in the regions," Wilckens said.
"The PALM program has been a saviour, as it delivered people who really wanted to work in remote locations and be part of remote communities."
G'Day Group – who own and operate around 85 Discovery Parks properties in Australia, many in remote locations – have so far placed about 35 Vanuatu workers in roles across its Kings Canyon and Kimberley (El Questro) properties. And they're looking to recruit more migrants through the scheme, with jobs in locations spanning Rottnest Island in Western Australia, and Cloncurry and Airlie Beach in Queensland.
"Aussies have enjoyed their time in remote communities, but it's quite short-term, whereas the PALM candidates are committed for a full season or longer, and they're earning decent money compared to what they earn back home, so it's an attractive offer for them," said Wilckens.
The company is also hoping to attract a fresh wave of overseas workers with newly-upgraded guest and staff facilities. Since acquiring Kings Canyon Resort last year, the holiday park operator has injected $15 million into the property, modernising resort rooms and expanding the staff village with an additional 27 rooms.
"If you want to attract good staff, people expect ensuites and their own room. Different service levels, different expectations," said Wilckens. So far, the tourism operator has installed additional accommodation at their properties in Kings Canyon, Glen Helen, Lake Argyle, El Questro and Undara in Queensland, mostly in remote locations, to attract workers."
Wilckens said there's still a place for the Working Holiday Maker (WMH) scheme, historically geared towards backpackers, but believes the industry needs both for different reasons.
"Working holiday staff probably spend more, but they have a different purpose. We want to increase our PALM numbers, to attract people at management level and recruit stable, long-term workers," Wilckens said. "The PALM program adds another layer of staff to the more transient working holiday visa people – that's how we view our structure."
For Timor-Leste and Pacific islanders like Vincic, the scheme is proving a win-win.
"It's good that we can come here – we have great managers, friendly staff. I would recommend it to others for sure. I believe that if I can do this, anyone back home could help their families too."