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Meet the woman delivering remote work to rural Australia

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For many city dwellers, with the exception of the uber-wealthy and established land-holders, browsing real estate in regional Australia is masochistic. The realisation that in other places – beautiful, bustling places – you can buy an entire home for the price of a derelict garage space here is not easily forgotten.

For families renting in Sydney or Melbourne, the option to buy a four-bedroom house with a backyard for well under a million dollars is tantalising. It makes the “decentralisation strategy”, promoted by the deputy PM Barnaby Joyce as a means of fixing housing unaffordability, awfully appealing. But there is a catch that prevents a mass exodus: finding work.

Wagga Wagga-based entrepreneur Jo Palmer, founder of Pointer and Agri Alliance. Wagga Wagga-based entrepreneur Jo Palmer, founder of Pointer and Agri Alliance. Photo: Rachel Lenehan

While the cost of living outside a capital city is cheaper, without an income it is a moot point and a report by the online employment search engine Adzuna in March this year, comparing jobs in Sydney and Melbourne and regional NSW and regional Victoria makes it clear this isn’t a cinch.

“Just hours out of Sydney in areas like the Illawarra, Newcastle and Riverina, job vacancies are scarce and competition for roles is fierce,” Adzuna Australia CEO Raife Watson says. With the exception of healthcare, salaries in regional areas are considerably lower.

“Yes, the cost of living is lower in regional Australia, but the salary disparity compared with our capital cities still leaves a considerable shortfall for those living outside metropolitan areas,” Watson says.

While in Sydney 3.6 job seekers compete for job vacancies it jumps to 8.0 job seekers competing for roles in regional NSW. Ninety-five per cent of finance jobs in NSW are in Sydney, as are eight out 10 trade and construction jobs in NSW.  

In Victoria the picture is similar. In the city there are 6.1 job seekers competing for every vacancy compared with 10.4 in regional Victoria. Across the state nine out of 10 jobs in trade and construction or sales are in the Melbourne region.

It is a scenario that Wagga Wagga-based entrepreneur Jo Palmer is determined to address. The lack of suitable work for qualified Australians living outside capital cities, coupled with the rise of remote work and flexibility, is what led Palmer to start her second business, Pointer.

Ange MacAlpine, 29, works remotely in the finance sector from a property in The Marra in outback NSW. Ange MacAlpine, 29, works remotely in the finance sector from a property in The Marra in outback NSW. 

The business seeks to connect employers and recruiters with the best candidates for a job regardless of where they live, and deliver thousands of qualified Australians the opportunity to work remotely.

“If a corporate can give someone in Sydney two days a week of remote work, why can’t they give it to someone in Broken Hill? If their internet is as good – why can’t they be in the mix?” she asks.

Pointer helped connect Ange MacAlpine from The Marra with employers in the city. Pointer helped connect Ange MacAlpine from The Marra with employers in the city. 

Palmer went to high school in Sydney, university in Wagga, and then worked overseas before marrying a farmer and moving back to Wagga. She was on maternity leave with their first child when she received the type of phone call that many mothers in search of flexible work would dream of. 

“A friend from Sydney said ‘look, this is a random request but would you be interested in a taking on a six to eight-month contract and you can work remotely on sponsorship management?’  They didn’t want to put someone on permanently and because their office space wasn’t huge so a remote worker suited them.”

It was an agriculture-related company and they wanted someone with a rural background. “Even though I was a teacher at that stage I took it and am still doing that role four years later.”

In 2016, Palmer co-founded a sponsorship and event management business, Agri Alliance, and the idea for Pointer was borne from her considering the business’s future employment needs earlier this year.

“I commented to a friend that I can’t wait for the day [Agri Alliance] is big enough that I can provide work opportunities to all my skilled friends living in the country who can’t find work.”

Her friend said that was a business idea in itself. 

“She said ‘there is an incubator program starting in Wagga in three weeks and you need to be involved’. Eight weeks later we were online and trading.”

Ange MacAlpine, a 29-year old who has worked in the finance sector for over a decade, who lives in The Marra, an “outback NSW town” that is 700 kilometres from Sydney and 300 kilometres from Dubbo, where her husband’s family have a property, is one candidate who has secured remote work through Pointer.

“There is no township [here] and I have had to be very patient. I was finding it quite hard and often very deflating because everywhere I turned businesses wanted me closer,” she explains. “Having a one-stop shop where the employers are passionate about the right person and skills for the role regardless of where that person might live was a godsend.”  

MacAlpine is now working remotely as a financial consultant to a business based in Young, six hours from her home. She prepares and monitors budgets, completes payroll and BAS, reports to the board and provides advice on all financial affairs. Email and FaceTime mean the fact she is so far away doesn’t matter. 

“Being able to work from home means I do not have to travel great lengths for work, it allows me to be employed in the field I am skilled in and helps provide some ‘off farm’ income,” MacAlpine says. “With the push for flexible working and the opportunities of technology I don’t see why more businesses do not support remote working, when not only does it save office space and money for the business it opens the doors to a larger pool of potentially highly skilled candidates.”

Pointer has skilled candidates listed that can fill the supply chain to take an enterprise from idea to launch: “We have accountants, solicitors, web designers, graphic designers, experienced social media and marketing professionals, book keepers: we have them all.”

She says employer demand is there but it’s a slow burn.

“We have two types of employers. The converted who have engaged someone who works remotely for whatever reason and know how well it can work,” she says.  “And then there are people who are dipping their toes in.”

When a prospective employer expresses doubt about how effective remote working can be  Palmer asks them to consider the fact their accountants and solicitors, arguably among their most trusted advisers, effectively work remotely.  

“I say why don’t you give it a go with your graphic designer, or your marketing manager?  Businesses in regional areas do understand the juggle because you don’t necessarily have all of the right skills in the town so you might have to look elsewhere.”

The fact many SMEs in regional areas are unwilling to fork out huge sums of money to recruiters and recruiters are less interested in jobs under the $100K salary, plays in Pointer’s favour. “The opportunity to link up with quality candidates without an exorbitant price tag is attractive,” Palmer says. 

Georgina Dent is a journalist, editor and TV commentator with a keen focus on women’s empowerment and gender equality. 

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