A TOOWOOMBA migrant employment service is helping solve workforce shortages in regional Australia, connecting motivated jobseekers with country businesses desperate for long-term staffing solutions.

The Mulberry Project’s latest success was matching two young South Sudanese men with employment and training opportunities in the south west Queensland town of Goondiwindi.

It recently took a group of its participants on a road trip to the region, after local business leaders identified job vacancies across a wide range of industries.

Goondiwindi Communications director Trent Murray said he’d been looking for a solution to his staffing issues, and with almost every business in the area needing staff, he wanted to try something different to find people willing to relocate to the region, about 350kms west of Brisbane.

The Mulberry Project participants and staff meeting Goondiwindi employers. IMAGE: Supplied

“We were doing the same thing over and over and it was just not working – everyone was struggling,” Murray said.

After meeting The Mulberry Project group, Murray said their work ethic was something he hadn’t seen for a long time.

“These guys were really keen. They’ve got some excellent candidates that are probably overqualified – the roles they’re getting are very mundane compared to what they’ve studied, but they’re able to use their skills out here and they’re looking to set up a life out here,” Murray said.

“They’re the people I was very interested in targeting – they’ve already got the want to move here.”

Liai and Akol are preparing to move to Goondiwindi. IMAGE: The Mulberry Project

Murray has offered one young man an apprenticeship in electronics and communications and played a key role in helping another find work, so the pair could move to the town together later this month, even inviting them to join a local AFL practice.

“We did a drive around, showed them the sights, what sports are they interested in – just to give them a taste of what it would be like to live out here. That’s our big sales pitch – the way of life out here.” 

The Mulberry Project had humble beginnings as a migrant gardening initiative back in 2016, helping new arrivals improve their English and learn new skills, particularly in food production, to address underemployment within migrant and refugee communities on the Downs.

Seven years on and founder Louise Noble has just been named one of four finalists for this year’s AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award.

“We’re doing entry level programs and then skilled migrant programs into agriculture and agribusiness and that’s been fascinating,” Noble told The Caller.

“I think there’s a lot of factors that have led to a situation where the pathways into those careers are quite broken.

“The service delivery from employment services is very fragmented and so employers are kind of at (their) wit’s end to know where to go to find people.”

Louise Noble at Mulberry Project headquarters at the Toowoomba Showgrounds

“Some businesses – some communities have thought the only way to solve the workforce crisis is to import communities from outside Australia.

“I suppose what we’re saying is, that we’ve already got plenty of people in Australia.

“They’ve got additional barriers so they need support getting into employment but they’re very motivated, as long as you can build their confidence and the necessary skills, and connect them to employers.”

Noble said she liked to think of The Mulberry Project as a “continuity of care” approach to employment, stressing how important social support networks were for migrants moving to places like Goondiwindi for work.

“Making new people feel really welcome, I think is critical to success,” she said.

Noble acknowledged the state government’s Diverse Queensland Workforce Project as a step in the right direction towards making the most of the skills new arrivals bring with them.

“I think now is the time to think critically about the way we do transition people and I think there’s a good argument to be made for developing the equivalent of a graduate program, but for migrants,” Noble said.

“The systems that they’re using in agriculture, in broad acre, in all industries now are highly complex – there’s even a greater need for skills than there was.

“We can’t afford not to do this.”

The winner of the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award will be announced early next month. The other three finalists are:

  • Emma Black, from Kingaroy, whose real-time analysis and insights software for livestock producers is generating certainty across the supply chain.
  • Emma-Louise Gibbons, from the Sunshine Coast, who is using Australian-farmed insect protein to sustainably produce a line of dog food and treats.
  • Kate Lamason, from Cairns, whose vertically-integrated production model has brought tuna canning to Australian markets.
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