Mark Nicolas of Downing Teal, an executive search firm specialising in the resources sector in Perth, recently shared his insights into the changing demographics of Western Australia. He identified many challenges and benefits that the immigrant workforce is having on the local culture and says that having people from many parts of the world settle in WA cities brings a global perspective and experience that would otherwise not be there.
I asked Mark, who enjoyed an international career, including time in Asia, before settling in Perth in 2003, how the demographic and cultural changes in Western Australia are affecting employers and employees. I also asked him to share with readers of Stepping Up a little of how the community is responding to those changes. Read the interview below:
Cultural diversity benefits Western Australia
Pamela Young: How has the cultural mix changed in Western Australia over the past 20-30 years?
Mark Nicholas: The change has been phenomenal. The Western Australia resources sector’s need for technical capability has put enormous pressure on the skills base of Australia. As a result, WA-based projects have looked to address their needs by recruiting from a global pool of talent.
This has caused a fundamental shift in the population demographic of WA. Perth is believed to host the largest South African expatriate population of any city in the world. The open work-rights arrangements with New Zealand have seen a peak in the influx of kiwis as well as some workers on ‘Fly-in, Fly-out’ arrangements.
For some time the hydrocarbon sector has attracted professionals from Scotland, England, Ireland and North America and more recently, from Japan and France. Our close proximity to Asia has meant significant business immigration and student arrivals, adding to this very rich cultural mix.
PY: What are the challenges in building a culturally diverse community in WA?
MN: WA has become more diverse without realising it. This rich blend of nationalities has crept up on the WA community due to factors other than planning and design. There are integration and resettling challenges that arise from this steady stream of people from different cultures and sometimes expectations and reality take time to gel.
Larger, mature organisations have the infrastructure and experience to manage the assimilation process of expatriate staff: they dedicate significant resources and effort to ensure this happens. Relocation consultants are sometimes engaged to assist families with housing (not easy in an extremely constrained market), schooling and understanding of the local area (shopping precincts and emergency facilities etc.).
Smaller and privately owned firms are more inclined to rely on the goodwill and resilience of the immigrant employee and their families to cope with the resettlement challenge.
Despite the influx of expatriate workers, there is little, if any, overt resistance by local communities. The exception to this is the (consistently) vocal opposition of some unions, which he see resources industry as useful for achieving political outcomes. The protectionist, anti-immigration rhetoric from this quarter is largely out of kilter with reality: this is not about a fear or lack of acceptance of immigrant workers (indeed, many of the most vocal union representatives are immigrants themselves), it is about securing an ever-decreasing membership.
PY: What would you say to employers in WA wanting to attract the best skills to the West Coast?
MN: To date, attracting and retaining talent has led to a seemingly endless upward spiral in remuneration levels: a lure that has been offered and expected. However, savvy employers are now looking at providing a broader offer that includes non-monetary incentives to entice people to relocate to WA. Much of the extra value offered relates to lifestyle – accessibility of sporting, recreational and cultural activities. Support for families that are dislocated from their traditional extended-family networks is also crucial and now being offered.
The most difficult group of people to attract to WA are East Coast Australians. The hurdles to get over include:
- moving so far away from their families and support systems
- moving to a more remote location (though in most cases, FIFO is Perth based)
- stamp duty costs relating to moving the family home
- cost of living in WA is significantly higher than most Eastern States cities
- the impact on families of the FIFO routine
- a generational shift in work culture – younger generations don’t see ‘relocation to obtain work’ as a natural part of building a career (i.e. Gen Ys expect the world to come to them)
PY: Outside of the resources sector, how would a more culturally diverse community benefit WA?
MN: A global perspective and more culturally diverse population can bring huge benefit to any community. If WA wants to engage more effectively with the world, socially and economically, a more open society will help make that happen. As the cultural mix of WA increases, you can see the introduction of new ideas and a slow, but positive, shift in attitudes.
Already benefits are flowing and include:
- better engagement with overseas markets (e.g. WA leads the country in direct investment in Africa)
- a more informed view of current and potential markets
- a positive shift in attitudes toward many important social and cultural matters
There are challenges though. WA’s outlook can be woefully parochial and sometimes reactionary. This is illustrated by the state’s resistance to many sensible developments that would align us with and enable us to grow beyond other states, such as:
- late to accept the new drink-driving laws
- resistance to adopting common schooling structures to align year levels with other states
- deregulation of shopping hours
- non-implementation of daylight saving
- recurring suggestion that WA should secede from the Commonwealth
Continuing to build a broader cultural base of people who bring world experience will help to break down attitudes that hold the state back. While there is merit in defending the interests of the state from attacks by central government, the introduction of a broader worldview has potential to frame political and social attitudes in more productive, less jingoistic terms.
Interview with: Mark Nicholas, Manager Construction & Engineering, Downing Teal Pty Ltd, Perth, WA, Australia