Coronavirus: Green-shoot dreams blooming amid devastation

Amid the obvious devastation of the coronavirus on the Australian workforce is a more complicated picture: unrelenting hotspots, green shoots, skills in demand and opportunities for small businesses.

Indeed, a survey of 1000 small businesses conducted by CoreData in June shows 4 per cent of enterprises recorded an increase in revenue during the pandemic.

The ABS data series underpinning the report confirms that waiters, kitchenhands, beauty therapists, travel advisers and many others lost jobs on a vast scale as cafes, travel agencies and personal services businesses either closed or went into job-crushing hibernation.

Yet despite the scale of the job losses, the data also tells another powerful story of hope and opportunity.

Between February and May, job numbers jumped in agribusiness (the drought broke), in technology (geeks got us online), in health and wellness (retired and disengaged GPs re-entered the workforce) and in logistics (presumably involving the storage and distribution of hoarded products).

The problem for the nation is that the February-to-May green shoots are completely offset by the scale of job losses.

Nevertheless, there are quirky aspects to the report’s listing of 141 seemingly pandemic-proof “growing jobs”, including, for example, a surge in the number of workers who describe their occupation as chief executive or managing director (up 16,458 or 58 per cent), which I assume includes those who may have lost their job and set up shop as a contractor or consultant or are simply pursuing their own business interests.

Australia’s “gardener’” population jumped 17 per cent over these months. Is a self-employed gardener a chief executive of a garden maintenance company?

My favourite is a 38 per cent increase in the boat builder and shipwrights workforce over these months.

It’s almost as if some displaced workers have used the pandemic as a circuit-breaker to exit the “employee workforce” to set up their own small businesses.

Interestingly, the canvas and leather goods maker population jumped by 89 per cent while the fashion, industrial and jewellery designer workforce went up by 48 per cent.

Some of the expanding jobs very much lean towards the creative skill sets.

The (CoreData) survey revealed the inherent optimism of small business owners. Indeed, by one measure optimists about the next six months outnumber the pessimists by 2:1. And it kind of makes sense: small business operatives must have optimism hardwired into their DNA.

And isn’t working for yourself part of the Australian dream? To be your own boss, to have the option of working from home, and quite possibly to do all of this from a lifestyle location, undoubtedly appeals to independently minded Australians.

Coronavirus has brought misery and uncertainty to many, but for some the pandemic might just be the incentive needed to reinvent themselves in a business they’ve always admired from afar but never got around to pursuing.

Bernard Salt is managing director of The Demographics Group and author of Rebuilding Australia: The role of small business.