One of the clearest pictures of issues affecting small businesses in rural Australia has emerged from a large study in western Victoria.
Partnering with the Wimmera Development Association, Dr Cathy Tischler of Federation University’s Wimmera Campus in Horsham, has led a comprehensive survey and analysis of almost 150 small businesses from 25 towns across six shires in the region, looking at how they are faring, what their frustrations are, and what they would need to grow and prosper.
“This is probably the first picture of how small rural businesses are going and what they need,” Dr Tischler says. “What we’ve found here is not unique to our communities. It has some really interesting implications for other communities that are more than three hours’ drive from capital cities.”
The two biggest issues common to nearly all of the retail, transport, tourism and accommodation businesses were finding and keeping staff and, related to this, the lack of housing in rural areas to attract new workers and residents. “They can’t attract people to the region when there’s nowhere to live,” Dr Tischler says. “So to employ people, you’ve got to rely on poaching people from other businesses within the region, which is not very sustainable.”
The study added credence to some of Dr Tischler’s previous work showing the lack of adequate childcare in rural areas. “There is a skilled, untapped workforce here who can’t work enough because there isn’t enough childcare. We need a regional childcare action plan and some investment to get scaled childcare into these communities. That would be a big gamechanger for us.”
Most government decision-makers wouldn’t know the extent of the workforce shortages in rural areas because of the way the situation is reported, Dr Tischler says. “Almost every business said they don’t advertise because there’s no point, but that’s a key way in which government tracks employment needs. So we have to improve the way we report our workforce needs in rural areas and communicate this to government.”
Other issues common to many of the rural businesses included the desire for mentoring, training and marketing assistance. But some specific challenges raised were big issues only for individual businesses or towns. “Businesses in Harrow, for example, highlighted issues with power supply,” Dr Tischler says. “Hopetoun wanted more signage to help tourists find the lake. And in Great Western, speed was seen as a problem – needing traffic to slow down so local residents can safely cross the highway and access services on both sides of the road.”
Dr Tischler had a series of recommendations coming out of the study that will be used by the Wimmera Development Association, councils, communities and policymakers. One was to encourage business communities to do a town-level stocktake of what services they are providing. This could help them collaborate and avoid shooting themselves in the foot.
“For example, one small community had a local tourist venture that was basically managed by volunteers,” she says. “Bus groups came to visit this site, and volunteers made sandwiches and sold them as part of the tour. Which is nice in a way, but it’s impacting on the economic viability of the local community – a cafe could viably provide that service. The people are trying to do something good but are actually creating a negative impact on the development of their community. Better collaboration might mean a town can offer decent coffee on a Sunday, for example, because a local business is viable.”
Dr Tischler and her colleagues identified several factors that helped rural business communities prosper. “Newer businesses were more likely to be undertaking capital development. When you get a few of them in the same town it generates its own momentum,” she says. “Our data also indicates that some communities are doing better than others because they have ‘connectors’ – people who are really outward-facing and bring fresh ideas and get people on board for change.”
As head of the Horsham Research Hub, which is part of Federation University’s Future Regions Research Centre, Dr Tischler is keen to collaborate with other rural planning and development organisations to determine ways in which rural communities can positively move forward.
“The key to changing the narrative about rural communities is good local level data that helps us fill in the gaps that are missing from state level data,” she says. “Just like when you take a photo, it’s the detailed pixels that really make the picture.”