‘Unbroken’ Hill: Boomtown crying out for workers

 

Usually there isn't a lot of green to be seen when looking at a map of Broken Hill and its surrounds.

But what is immediately striking about the Australian Bureau of Statistics' geographic chart of employment is that the birthplace of BHP - not to mention the backdrop for some of our best-known films - is the most fertile patch in the nation.

The ABS map is built on fortnightly Australian Taxation Office payroll data since the 100th case of coronavirus.

It shows Broken Hill (and the far west of NSW) to be the only area with more people in jobs now than before the onset of COVID-19.

This town of 18,000 people about 1150km west of Sydney is benefiting from a boom in domestic tourism, rising interest in lesser-known minerals and growing demand for NDIS services, as well as reasonable rainfall.

This week The Daily Telegraph visited Broken Hill and discovered that despite bouncing back better than anywhere in Australia, the 'Silver City' is still crying out for workers.

 

ABS heat mapping shows the area including Broken Hill is the only part of Australia with higher job levels than before COVID-19. Source: abs.gov.au
ABS heat mapping shows the area including Broken Hill is the only part of Australia with higher job levels than before COVID-19. Source: abs.gov.au

 

 

 

HAPPY RETURNS

Six months ago, inner westie Darren Leo was doubting he'd ever own a house - or even be able to afford membership at a decent golf club.

Then, in October, he took a road trip from Sydney to his home town, without the slightest intention of moving back. Now he is preparing to move into his dream home on a quarter-acre block, purchased for $250,000.

He's also playing more golf than he has for 10 years after forking out the $600 annual fee to join the local links.

"I've never been happier," Mr Leo said.

This week he started as the new physiotherapist at Thrive Medical Centre, which will open in two months and boast a huge rehabilitation facility.

Thrive Medical Centre physiotherapist Darren Leo who has just moved back to Broken Hill from Sydney. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Thrive Medical Centre physiotherapist Darren Leo who has just moved back to Broken Hill from Sydney. Picture: Jonathan Ng

The $4 million centre is a collaboration between Broken Hill businessman Steve Radford and local occupational therapist Heather Pearce.

It was only when his father needed an MRI that Mr Radford discovered the nearest machine was 300km away at Mildura, Victoria. When state borders close, the closest option is Dubbo, 750km east.

From May, locals will be able to get an MRI locally at Thrive. The centre will employ 45 people plus expand the National Disability Insurance Scheme services on offer in the town.

Ms Pearce said in Broken Hill at the moment there's a lot going on. "I went to Melbourne recently and I felt fortunate to live in the middle of nowhere," she said.

Farmer Brendan Cullen with his wife Jacinta, on Kars Station a 150,000 acre sheep and cattle farm he manages near Broken Hill. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Farmer Brendan Cullen with his wife Jacinta, on Kars Station a 150,000 acre sheep and cattle farm he manages near Broken Hill. Picture: Jonathan Ng

MUDDY GOOD TIMES

When Brendan and Jacinta Cullen took over managing Kars Station outside Broken Hill in 2016, it recorded its best rainfall for that month in a century - some 110mm.

And then came the dry. For four years. Less rain annually on the 60,000ha property than for that single month in 2016.

The company that owns Kars Station told them to sell stock and its breeding ewes fell from 7500 to 2000. But in the past year, rainfall has returned to normal levels, and Kars has bought 1500 breeding ewes. Plus, for the first time since 2016, they are running cattle too. "There's money in mud," Mr Cullen said.

"I think the future is positive," said the Lifeline ambassador, who is training to swim the English Channel next year. He practises in the Menindee Lakes that border the station. "You have some mongrel days but you have some cracking days too."

Mrs Cullen, who does community engagement work for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, said Broken Hill's RFDS visitor centre has three busloads of tourists on Tuesday alone. Tourism in Broken Hill had "never been like this - ever," she said.

 

Tiffany Graham, 26, who recently started work at McDonald's Broken Hill, the restaurant is looking to hire 30 extra workers. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Tiffany Graham, 26, who recently started work at McDonald's Broken Hill, the restaurant is looking to hire 30 extra workers. Picture: Jonathan Ng

 

GOLDEN ARCHES

McDonald's Broken Hill is also looking for 30 workers.

It's most recent hire is Tiff Graham, who worked at Macca's until eight years ago, when she became a mother. "It's a pleasure to be here," she said. "It's like a family."

Franchisee Mark Craven said McDonald's was one of the town's largest employers of young people.

 

Cobalt Blue demonstration plant manager Adam Randall, with a Pyrite core drill sample which contains cobalt taken from a new mine site at Broken Hill. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Cobalt Blue demonstration plant manager Adam Randall, with a Pyrite core drill sample which contains cobalt taken from a new mine site at Broken Hill. Picture: Jonathan Ng

NATURAL RESOURCES

Adam Randall hopes that Broken Hill school students will come to think their working future could be in cobalt - a key component in electric vehicle batteries.

ASX-listed Cobalt Blue's deposit 23km outside Broken Hill has enough of the metal to power five million EVs.

Within five years the company intends to create up to 400 jobs requiring an array of technical skills.

It has also committed to hiring locally, including by developing local skills and training. "I would like to tap into the resources that are here in town now, which is the kids," Mr Randall, who manages Cobalt Blue's $3 million pilot plant, said.

"There's an opportunity unfolding on their doorstep."

The company also wanted to attract couples and families to Broken Hill given the work opportunities in the town.

"Everybody is screaming for people," he said.

 

Jason King (back) owner of Bell's Milk Bar bought an ice cream truck to help COVID proof his business. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Jason King (back) owner of Bell's Milk Bar bought an ice cream truck to help COVID proof his business. Picture: Jonathan Ng

 

A DAIRY BIG EXPANSION

Jason King created three new jobs at his Bells Milk Bar business during the pandemic, including Broken Hill's only ice cream truck.

"COVID inspired me to do the truck," Mr King said in between serving treats to customers. "I'd been thinking about it for a long time."

Meanwhile, in his video production business he's put on a trainee.

Filming in the area has increased because NSW has remained more open than other states, he said.

As a location scout, that's benefited him, as have federal government incentives to bring overseas productions to Australia.

"The vibe in Broken Hill now, compared to pre-COVID, is definitely better," Mr King said.

 

Selina La Rovere-Nagas (right) and sister Esther La Rovere co-owners of the Palace Hotel in Broken Hill, made famous by the movie Priscilla. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Selina La Rovere-Nagas (right) and sister Esther La Rovere co-owners of the Palace Hotel in Broken Hill, made famous by the movie Priscilla. Picture: Jonathan Ng

 

PRISCILLA'S PALACE 

Standing in the Priscilla Suite of Broken Hill's Palace Hotel, boss and part-owner Esther La Rovere said: "You wake up and you know you're not in an Ibis."

Ms La Rovere is about to embark on improvements that will see more rooms themed around the 1994 hit movie, in which the hotel featured. There may also be a Mad Max room. It too was filmed in the area.

Her sister and co-owner Selina La Rovere-Nagas said a merchandise shop is also in the works to take advantage of the new type of "cashed-up tourist" coming to town.

"We are seeing a huge change in the demographic," Ms La Rovere-Nagas said.

hotel is humming

The Tydvil Hotel is doing better than it was before the coronavirus. And it's employing more people.

Before COVID-19, it was averaging 110-120 dine-in meals per night plus 15 takeaways; now it's doing 150-160 sit-downs plus 20 eat-at-homes. Licensee Eric Hanna kept all 10 staff during the pandemic and recently added two more. He wants to bring on another five.

Some of those will help with the distillery next door that Mr Hanna opened six weeks ago, which sells gin and, yes, that's right, moonshine. "Everyone's jumped on it."

 

 

Originally published as 'Unbroken' Hill: Boomtown crying out for workers

Thrive’s Heather Pearce with the MRI machine which will be the first in Broken Hill when the new centre opens in May. Picture: Jonathan Ng
Thrive’s Heather Pearce with the MRI machine which will be the first in Broken Hill when the new centre opens in May. Picture: Jonathan Ng

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