By Natalie Heynes
What builds and sustains strong and resilient communities? Leadership Ballarat and Western Region participants met in Ararat recently to consider this.
We explored the population and workforce challenges facing regional towns and gained an understanding of the nature of workforce planning and economic development in the regions. We investigated regional migration projects which aim to improve economic prosperity and address workforce shortages.
Ararat is the only Australian city founded by the Chinese. It prospered during the gold rush but in 2019, faces some significant challenges.
We heard from Phuong Au, Project Manager, Opportunities Pyrenees, Ararat and Northern Grampians (“OPAN”). OPAN is a 3-year project which is funded by Regional Development Victoria and looks at workforce planning, migration, housing and transport, and barriers to achieving success in relation to these. One of OPAN’s goals is to ensure that strategies around these challenges achieve meaningful outcomes for the community.
The group explored how migration can play an important role in resolving some of these challenges. There is a tension between the need to attract a workforce to Ararat to maintain and grow its various industries, and the need to provide the increased workforce with suitable accommodation in a region which struggles with shortages in housing. We discussed creative ideas around how the volume of housing could be increased and diversified in a way that appropriately meets the growth anticipated, without creating a false economy.
Annette Creek and Melissa Powell from the Nhill Neighbourhood House talked about how Nhill faced and successfully worked through similar challenges. When a major employer in Nhill was facing closure due to an inability to attract staff, its General Manager approached the Karen-Burmese refugee community in Melbourne to invite them to Nhill. Could Nhill provide both an employment opportunity and a new home? Fifteen community members attended Nhill, and subsequently many of their friends and families followed. Until that point, Nhill’s community had not featured any migrants, nor any refugees. About 10 years on, the Karen-Burmese now make up about 10% of Nhill’s population and about 18% of its workforce.
LBWR participants were interested to hear about the extraordinary gains to the Nhill community which have resulted from this initiative. The company had a reliable workforce and could continue to operate. The town had more families, which had positive flow on effects in terms of increased spending in the local economy and a new bunch of volunteers. The school had more students. Housing that had been vacant for years was quickly occupied as demand outstripped supply. The Nhill community gathered to welcome and support the Karen-Burmese refugees in all sorts of ways.
Nhill’s success has not been without its challenges and we considered the role that community plays in supporting not only the migrant worker, but the migrant worker’s partner and family. A community can offer employment but for success in the long term, it must also offer a sense of belonging and purpose.
So, as Ararat looks at ways in which it can meet its workforce planning and housing needs, it must also strengthen and build upon its community in the process. Can a town whose foundation was built on migration in the 1800s rely upon migration in 2019 to address some of its biggest challenges?