This post is my honest account of finding work in Australia on a working holiday visa. For general tips on how to find work in Australia, see this post.
Everyone knows a person who went away to Australia for a year and returned with thousands in the bank. They came home with a killer tan and possibly a drinking problem talking about how easy it was finding work in Australia, how high the wages are and how everywhere in the country needs backpackers for hospitality work. Amazing! When I booked a one-way flight to Melbourne in 2015, I felt absolutely positive that I’d be reaping the rewards of the Australian Dream the moment I set foot off the plane.
The good news: That actually happened!
The bad news: It didn’t last.
I’ve had five jobs since arriving in Australia, three in hospitality, one call centre and one farming. The first was working in a ‘hotel’ (pub) in a small, coastal Queensland town called Bowen. After 36 hours and four flights, thanks to my utter ignorance of how terrible long haul flights and layovers are, I arrived at Proserpine airport.
Where on earth was I? It was so hot- in July?!– and the airport was basically a bus station. I was delirious with exhaustion and there were dead kangaroos all over the sides of the road. My friend picked me up from the airport and we drove the hour to Bowen, where she’d been living and completing her regional work.
“It’s like going back in time!”
Bowen is where the film Australia was filmed in 2006. If you didn’t know that fact coming into Bowen, you soon found out because everyone’s still talking about it. There are pictures of people shaking hands with Hugh Jackman everywhere. As you drive into town, you can see BOWENWOOD painted on a water tower on the hill. The main strip of the town, to my jet-lagged eyes, felt like an old Western movie, except you could smell the sea and everyone was wearing flip flops.
My friend worked at the main hotel in the town and we went for a few drinks there later that day. Everyone I met asked me if I was going to start my farmwork straightaway since that’s the main (only) reason backpackers end up in Bowen. I had no plans to work on a farm. I didn’t know if I wanted another year in Australia at that point.
Then as I explained for the tenth time that I wouldn’t be looking for a job for a while, an inebriated man in a hat and no shoes who had been dancing wildly in front of, behind and on top of the bar offered me a job starting that very weekend. I laughed. Australians are funny.
“I’m serious mate, I need someone starting this weekend for the Superboats” (The annual speedboat competition that hits the town in force.)
My new friend was, in fact, the owner of the hotel I was drinking in and did need a person that weekend for the Superboats. Boom- just like that I had a full-time job as a kitchen hand and waitress in the busiest place in the whole town. I thought that’s how easy it would be the whole year!
I managed to save up plenty in Bowen, especially once my friend and I moved into the hotel and lived in a room above the bar. No hot water or kitchen was a small price to pay for free rent and a fifteen-second commute down the stairs to work. Days off were spent on any of the many pristine beaches, floating in the waveless bays and curating the best tan I ever had in my life. I fell in love with that place. When it was time to leave to start, you know, actually travelling around Australia, we almost turned the car back around an hour down the highway. It was hard.
Then I ran out of money.
The moment we left Byron Bay, where we’d spent Christmas and Boxing Day, I started looking for farm jobs. I was broke but I wasn’t worried. Finding work in Australia is easy! I’ll save money and get the 88 regional work days required for my second year, no problem! Every backpacker does it, piece of cake, right?
The rejections started rolling in. Or worse, I just wouldn’t get a reply. How could I be this unqualified for unskilled labour jobs?! It wasn’t until we’d reached Melbourne two weeks later that I got a response from a farming Facebook page for an opening at a working hostel near Mildura. I immediately Googled ‘regional work Mildura’ and started reading the many, many horror stories of other backpackers who were scammed there. I wasn’t feeling so positive anymore! But these were desperate times.
I shot off a reply- can I speak to the owner of the hostel before I go?
I received a mobile number for the hostel manager in response and called with shaking hands. To my immense relief, the girl who answered was friendly, reassuring and gave me instructions on exactly how to get to the hostel after taking the overnight bus from Melbourne. I’d arrive and be assigned a job on one of the surrounding vineyards a day or two later. Phew.
Actually doing the farm work is a whole other story that needs its own post. I’ll be writing that very soon!
I left Mildura and headed to Perth- with a new travel buddy!
Of course, actually travelling in Australia is incredibly expensive and by the time I’d reached the capital of Western Australia, I was in desperate need of a job. I had enough money to book myself into a hostel with free wifi and free breakfast (a lifesaver in those destitute times) and I started firing off my newly updated CV to, well, everyone.
Since the plan was to stay in Perth long-term, I thought I’d put my years of call centre experience to use and apply to office jobs, temp jobs, contact centres plus all kinds of hospitality. Even though it was winter in WA, there seemed to be plenty of places hiring. I felt quite confident.
Days went by. Then weeks. The only way I managed financially is all thanks to my very generous parents who transferred me enough money to keep my hostel room. After a week or so, my travel buddy/boyfriend, Tim, found a job. It was an immense but partial relief! I was receiving daily rejection emails. No office wants someone on a working holiday since the visa only allows you to work for six months for any single company. I was completely disheartened. I felt unemployable and to be frank, a bit useless.
Eventually, after enough time had passed to ensure my rose tinted view of the Australian Dream had been thoroughly squashed, I found a job. It was at a lovely little cocktail bar and Southern American style restaurant. The hours were great. My coworkers were great. A month later, I get an interview for one of the call centre jobs I’d applied for (jobs… buses… something something…)
I tried working both jobs. It was okay for a while and the fact I was saving over 1000AUD every fortnight made things a whole lot easier but it couldn’t last. I was up at 6am daily for the call centre and after I’d go straight to the restaurant until late. I had one day off a week and was working 70 hours. Tim and I barely saw each other and when we did, I was a huge grouch.
Eventually, I received the push needed to stop the crazy hours: I quit the restaurant job after an unexpected change in management caused the majority of the staff to walk out one night. I was sad- if I could have chosen to keep one job it would have been the restaurant because call centre work anywhere in the world is, to me, a soul-sucking nightmare.
Winter turned to Spring in Perth. I was counting down the days to the end of my six-month contract at the call centre. With just one minimum wage income, my savings stalled. I started to regret booking a long weekend away with Tim at a fancy hotel in Margaret River, three hours south of Perth. How would I save back up again?
The perfect city break in Margaret River
We went to Margaret River and spent the weekend mountain biking in the beautiful Boranup Forest, drinking wine at endless wineries and sipping amazing cocktails at Morries. Wherever we went, people mentioned how busy it gets in summer and how much hospitality work there would be. How hot and grim the city gets in summer compared to little Margaret River. The seed of an idea was planted, which admittedly wasn’t hard given how unhappy I was with my job in Perth.
On the final day, while we waited for our late afternoon coach, we tried every single whisky at the Margaret River Distillery. Tim was in heaven. I’m not much of a whisky connoisseur but I do love alcohol. Gaz, the friendliest and most knowledgeable bartender I’d ever met, casually mentioned they were looking for staff. We stumbled out of the distillery and walked through the town one last time.
“What if…” I slurred, “We just moved here.”
“We… could” Tim pondered.
So that’s exactly what we did! We found a room in a shared house on Gumtree and sent emails with our CVs to all the places we could think of in town. By the time it was time to move, neither of us had any positive response from the email campaign. Having both quit our jobs and our shared room already being viewed by prospective new tenants, it was far too late to back out of the move. Outwardly, we remained positive that when we were actually in the town, things would be much easier. Inwardly, we both had concerns.
Could it be that decisions made after a full day in a whisky distillery are not the best decisions?
Luckily, it all worked out perfectly. Tim is now working at the Margaret River Distillery and after an hour handing out CVs in person in town, I was offered a job at the exact place I wanted: Morries, where we’d indulged in fantastic food and cocktails on that long weekend. We spend our days off cycling the many trails around Margaret River and visiting new wineries. Taking the risk and leaving a steady job in Perth was the best decision I’ve made since arriving in Australia and I’m much happier for it.
Hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the highs and lows of my time finding work in Australia! Have you done a working holiday before? What was your experience finding work?