The COVID-19 pandemic has created a population boom in regional Australia and is changing the way many view work in country areas.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data on internal migration shows there has been record movement of people from the capital cities to regional areas. While it doesn’t necessarily mean big businesses are about to shut up shop in the city and move to country towns, it does get you thinking about the prospect of working and partnering in the regions.

Reddin Group partner Andrew Telburn knows a thing or two about partnering with regionally based organisations.

Having partnered with several different organisations based in Victoria’s regions over the past decade he understands both the challenges and the potential successes that can be achieved.

Andrew spent 10-years partnering with Dairy companies, first by recruiting specialists, managers, and executives. What soon followed was a partnership that saw Andrew working across sites to change fractured organisational structures into something more cohesive and efficient, simply by having oversight of the business as a whole.

HR managers in the industry were focussed on their top priorities, industrial relations activities and issues, as well as the health and safety of their workers. While this is completely understandable, when the organisation and its businesses outgrew themselves, there was no one looking at their HR structures across their 7 sites — the synergies were not clear. This isn’t necessarily a regional issue, it’s true of any specialised industry that grows quickly across multiple locations

Andrew believes the challenges that many regional businesses have faced in the past when it comes to recruiting the right leaders, are often the result of limited access to pools of people with a required skill set. When people are choosing to live regionally it often takes a lot of thought and consideration, not just for the individual, but for their family. Often, it means completely uprooting a life.

Andrew has found now more than ever, that people who grew up in regional Victoria, moved to the city for university and initial experience, are now moving back to the regions.

Making a regional move for work is a decision that is so much more than just taking a good job. It’s a lifestyle choice.

For this reason, Andrew found himself becoming deeply involved with the communities that he was working within.

“All of a sudden I found myself getting to know the local school principals, the real estate agents, local gyms and footy clubs. Working in these regional areas is so much more than recruiting the right people for the right roles, it’s about understanding an entire community. I became genuinely interested in these areas and their people,” he said.

Working within the industry was not without its challenges: Andrew recalls having to work hard to break into the ‘club’ that can form in and around some regional based industries.

“Coming in you can be initially viewed as an outsider. The development of these relationships took time, years, but the successes gained in forming these partnerships were absolutely worth the time and effort,” he says.

He also recalls having to speak frankly about salary in order to secure talent from metro areas. It was only after that trust had been built, that these conversations could happen.

“It is certainly true that the ‘cost of living’ in regional areas is less than the city and that difference often finds its way into salary packages — remuneration in regional areas is often up to 20 per cent less than equivalent roles in metropolitan areas. All things being equal — that’s fine … but if you need to attract talent from other areas, or from the ‘city’, there needs to be an incentive. Particularly when you consider families moving house and changing schools.

A regional lifestyle is enticing, but there are conveniences of the city that can’t be dismissed. As this dynamic became obvious, we began to engage openly not only about vacant roles across all sites, but also about the organisation’s succession plans and talent pipeline.

We could work with the organisation and for the right roles -perhaps a strategic leadership position or a role where there’s a skill shortage — offer a salary equal of its metro equivalent, or even slightly higher, opening up the talent pool to include talent from metropolitan areas, interstate or even other regional areas”.

“I am not however suggesting that you pay people more than they are worth, rather be mindful of the incentive. But also consider that regional areas are home to some very large food processing companies who employ hundreds of staff and in many cases, similar staff numbers to metropolitan based facilities. Hence, the Production Manager in a regional area has just as much ‘throughput’ and staff responsibilities as his or her city equivalent,” he says.

It was this level of trust, tough conversations and his passion for the regions that led to success.

“We were able to attract outstanding talent to a couple of previously inefficient sites. I can recall one facility in Northern Victoria that became a flag-ship facility for efficiency and this in fact saw further investment in the plant. To be honest, it was a case if divestment before that — and the site grew quite significantly. Obviously, this was good for the company’s bottom line, but it in fact opened up considerably more employment opportunities in the region. I don’t think its overstating the case to say without this improvement, the site in question would have been earmarked for closure”.

“We attracted an outstanding Continuous Improvement Engineer to drive 6 Sigma methodologies across Gippsland based facilities and even conducted an international search to gain talent from overseas experienced in particular processing technologies”.

A new plant was also commissioned in regional Tasmania. Again, outstanding for the local community, but to be properly staffed we had to attract talent from all over Australia. This occurred at a time when other organisations were downsizing, so it was a real boost for the local community.

“If you can show that your relationship is getting results for the organisation and trust is built, you find yourself being accepted as part of the organisation, and even more than that, part of the broader regional community,” Andrew says.

Looking to the future for regional partnerships Andrew is keen to see where things will land in a world post the COVID-19 pandemic.

With many large organisations providing the option for their employees to work from home, it opens the door to more people making a tree change to regional areas. As more people move to the regions, the pool of potential talent deepens. Whether it is the right talent for regional industries, only time will tell.

“The pull of the regions particularly through 2020 and 2021 is there. People are stopping to think about their way of life, the cost of living and, and quite frankly, rolling lockdowns, but for me unless the jobs are there, I’m not yet convinced that the regions are about to be inundated with huge populations.

For me, the deciding factor will be the level of government assistance that is provided to regional businesses. Areas like Geelong are a clear example of this. Investment in the region created jobs for the population, without that in some cases, I’m not sure the jobs are there to support an increased population,” he says.

While only time will tell, what he does know is that partnering in the regions is more than just a job. It’s a passion.

Andrew’s lessons learnt for creating powerful recruitment partnerships in the regions

1. You must be in the region regularly. Andrew lives in Melbourne, but he was in the regions “all the time”. Its only through regular visitation that you learn about the region.

2. If you are recruiting for a regional area, engage the family of someone wanting to permanently move: The executive or manager for instance won’t stay if their partner isn’t comfortable in the area. If it is a family, they need to consider schools and infrastructure. You need to know what’s around. A partner’s ability to secure employment is another important consideration.

3. Understand the economics of the region — schools, infrastructure, jobs, sporting clubs, the real estate market and also other employers and companies in the region.

4. Partnerships are based on success, so be mindful of opportunistic applications for positions in regional areas — are they committed to moving to the region? Interests, schools, partner employment etc all come into play. A poor placement is no good to anyone.

5. Appreciate the power of word-of-mouth in the community.

Partner at Reddin Group, Andrew Telburn