Australian Outback Jobs

For more than two decades I’ve specialised in photographing & writing about Australia’s largest cattle stations – visiting family and company-owned cattle stations in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. I’ve encountered many people seeking information on cattle station work and unfortunately don’t have the resources to respond to employment-related enquiries, except when received from customers. So the information below contains some reliable and independent first-hand facts on cattle station employment.

I recommend that anyone visiting Australia seeking rural employment for just a few weeks or months, also considers fruit picking jobs. Most fruitpicking work is located in closely settled parts of Australia not far from the coast, so this work provides an interesting contrast to work in outback Australia. There are plenty of websites with comprehensive information regarding fruit-picking employment conditions, fruit picking seasons, obtaining Australian work visas, etc.

Worried about heading off to work on a remote cattle station?

While many parents and friends are supportive unfortunately I’ve heard many people new to cattle station work say their parents and friends tried hard to discourage them, telling them they were mad to go and work on a cattle station. If you really want to work on a cattle station, don’t make the mistake of letting other people put you off. Instead ask anyone with a negative opinion to explain exactly where they got their information from and what their specific objections are. Chances are you’ll find they’ve really got no first-hand knowledge or current experience of what they’re talking about. Often these over-protective parents and friends just want the people they care about to be living ‘familiar’ lives nearby, that they perceive to be ‘safe’, so they can visit regularly and won’t be worrying. Perhaps their only source of information is a scare-mongering programme (big on drama and short on facts) they saw on television years ago, and without any other source of information, they believe that exactly what they have seen is true. Many people find it unsettling or are envious when someone they know heads off on an adventure they wouldn’t be game to try themselves, or are unable to do for whatever reason, so they try to discourage others.

Cattle stations are businesses like any other and with just as much variety.  There are large publicly-owned and family-owned companies which own a number of cattle stations and/or farms, as well as stand-alone privately and publicly-owned cattle stations and farms.  Bigger doesn’t necessarily equate to better or more efficient.  Public companies and private family ownership both have pros and cons, and what suits a particular person is greatly influenced by their temperament.  For example some people love working for a large company while others prefer a smaller, more personal employment situation.   There are some employers that are better to work for than others, some pay more than award wages and some don’t; and living conditions, training offered and expectations of staff can vary. However if workers are treated badly the station would soon have a bad reputation, become short-staffed and unable to run profitably. These days there are workplace health and safety guidelines in place plus workers compensation insurance. Stockhorses bred these days generally have much better temperaments and are more suited to novice riders than previously was the case.

All long-term jobs involve 3 ideal aspects – a good wage, interesting and satisfying work with a reasonable career path, and employers who are pleasure to work for. It pays to remember the old adage that you’ll only score 2 out of these 3 for 99% of jobs – very few score a ‘good’ for all 3 aspects! Unfortunately. This applies whether in the city or the bush.

I have met a lot of people in their 60s and 70s who have spent their whole lives living in a capital city, except for a few years spent ‘jackerooing’, which they invariably describe as the best years of their life. I also meet people of the same age who say with regret, ‘I always wanted to go ‘jackerooing’ but I never did’. I also meet people on stations who are only 16 or 17 who grew up on the coast or in the largest cities, who say they knew nothing about the bush except they always wanted to work there, ever since they were very young. These are people who are self-motivated and they usually take to the bush like a duck to water.  As do all particularly active kids, especially energetic boys, who find the typical classroom (sit down, sit still, listen, write neatly and don’t say boo) a tortuous challenge of sheer survival.  Agricultural employment is usually ideal for these types of can-do individuals who thrive on energetic activity and hands-on responsibility, as distinct from indoor desk-bound type jobs.

People who don’t like being out in the weather or getting their hands dirty, who want to work short hours in air-conditioning and go to restaurants and nightclubs every night are not suited to rural life.

If you are looking for a cattle station job it is essential to consider what an employer needs, not just what you want (just as a good employer will also be putting some thought into what is good for their employees).Cattle stations need staff who are genuinely interested in learning and prepared to give the job 100%, not people chasing a romantic dream, who want to live out some McLeods Daughters, Find a Farmer a Wife or American Western fantasy for a little while simply so they can boast to their mates that they worked in the bush (even though it was only for one season, or not even that long, and they still couldn’t ride a swag on a windy day). A cattle station employee completely new to the work will not be worth their pay until they have gained a certain amount of practice and knowledge. Don’t be surprised if rural employers are not falling over themselves to give you a start, if you have no experience, have not made an effort to gain any skills prior to starting work (EG. someone who has made the effort to get horseriding lessons will be viewed far more favourably than someone who cannot ride at all), and clearly only intend staying in the bush for a very short time.  Why would an employer view you as worth employing?

All agricultural enterprises are serious businesses requiring committed, reliable staff. It is common for a cattle station headstockman, only aged in his mid 20s, to be completely responsible for the welfare of half-a-dozen ringers and mobs of cattle worth more than half a million dollars. People who are not prepared to dedicate serious effort into learning the many skills required to do the best job possible are a liability from everyone’s point of view (the employer and those they work beside).

Is experience needed to get a job on a cattle station?

Like any other line of business, experienced staff are always preferred. Inexperienced staff were traditionally only taken on straight after leaving school and offered apprentice-like on-the-job training positions, as jackeroos, jilleroos and ringers. However the mining boom and general labour shortage caused an acute shortage of experienced people in rural Australia. Now jobs are offered to overseas visitors and keen older people with no experience. Genuine horseriding skills and/or cattle handling experience obviously increases the chances of employment. However just like any other line of employment, it is the right attitude that determines who will be viewed as a valuable employee and who will be thought of as a timewaster or worse still, a liability. Common sense, a realistic attitude, an ability to learn and willingness to work are attributes more important than anything else. With the right attitude, anyone can learn almost anything — no-one is born knowing everything. If you demonstrate a willingness to seriously give it a go, clearly want to stay for a length of time that is worthwhile from an employer’s point of view, and are physically fit enough to do the work required safely and ably, then there are many rural employers who will be happy to spend time helping you learn regardless of your age and experience. However older people changing careers may have to think creatively and enter the cattle station workforce by starting with short-term work on stations that relates to their former career (eg camp cooking, governess/teaching jobs, station bookkeeping [including accounting and I.T. work]), station mechanic or other trades work (painting, carpentry, building) and/or voluntary positions.

Horse riders in the bush

The northern Australian cattle industry is about the only line of work in the world left that has a large number of employment positions available involving riding horses for 6-12 hours daily for days on end, in the bush, during the mustering season (dry season). But this is no pony club plod-along; no real-life ‘Saddleclub’ pointless poke around; employees need to be serious about learning how to work cattle well — on a horse and on foot in the yards. Cattle station employees are also required to do a range of other jobs in addition to mustering and yardwork. Most cattle station jobs have a lot of variety, so after a few years employees have an unusually wide range of skills.  As mentioned above, the more horseriding experience you have the better your chances of employment will be.  The vast majority of northern Australian cattle stations rely on horseriders to handle cattle.

On-the-job training & long term prospects

Some station owners offer accreditation and formal learning assessments to employees intent on a long-term career. It is only during the second year of employment that someone completely new to the industry obtains a notable level of proficiency (anyone with experience makes it look a lot easier than it is), and someone with three year’s mustering experience is usually a very valued employee these days.

Due to current shortages of young staff, in the not-too-distant future there will be plenty of managers jobs available. There is already a shortage of headstockmen (ringers with at least 4-6 years mustering experience). So school-leavers entering the industry now should be well placed for good career prospects. After oxygen and water, food it the most vital element required by human beings. People will always need to eat, so agriculture is one of the few industries that can be counted on to gain in importance as the world becomes increasingly urbanised.

When is work available?

The mustering season runs during the dry season — approximately Easter until November. Most stations start new staff around February, however they may make job offers for the following year during the preceeding November, and exactly when staff are required to start work for the year depends on when the wet season finished, and the region. Quite often stations will have vacancies during the year also, however the most active start time is around February each year. Inexperienced staff who are offered a start are expected to do their best to at least complete a full year, and returning for a second year makes training worthwhile from an employer’s point of view.

What type of jobs are there?

There is a range of other jobs available on stations (the larger stations have more specialised positions on offer) and some of this work can easily be taken up by older people with the right experience or adaptability combined with realistic enthusiasm.

These jobs include station and camp cooks, butchers (a role which is often combined with gardening and handyman work), cleaners, bookkeepers, childcarers and governesses/teachers, pilots (helicopters and fixed wing), boremen, mechanics and truck drivers. Bore mechanics/windmill experts are becoming as scarce as hen’s teeth and I am increasingly told by station managers that there is a dire shortage of people with detailed knowledge of bore and mill repairs.

Tradesmen have always been scarce in the bush so anyone with trade qualifications can usually find jobs easily. Families in rural areas often have no choice but to wait years for essential house repairs and alterations so quality tradespeople are often greeted with much enthusiasm.

Builders, painters and electricians with solid references may be able to pick up work while travelling through an area. If their work is good quality then referrals can lead from station to station. And if they rip one person off with poor workmanship they can expect everyone for miles around to hear about it even more quickly. (Most people in remote areas rely on email, social media and the internet more than urban residents and there are a number of email forums and social media platforms that rural people subscribe to. This means news travels far more quickly and efficiently than ever before.)

Where can you find rural jobs or training?

State-based rural newspapers are weekly sources of rural employment positions and other information. For example the Queensland Country Life carries frequent advertisements for most of the larger family and company employers for the Kimberley Region of Western Australia and the top half of the Northern Territory, as well as Queensland and northern New South Wales. Traditionally, many ringers in the East and West Kimberley Regions of Western Australia have come from Queensland. The Land has New South Wales employment ads and The Weekly Times has Victorian job advertisements.   The bi-monthly R.M. William’s Outback magazine runs job advertisements for most of the largest pastoral companies in every issue. There are of course standard online job-listing websites, as well.

There are a number of employment agencies that specialise in rural positions. These can be found in the ‘classifieds’ section of rural newspapers and by doing web searches.

There are many bush-related Facebook groups now, where people often post messages looking for employees or employers. Find these groups by searching Facebook using keywords such as ”outback”, “the bush” and “live export”.  Find one group and you’ll often find links to a whole host of other similar groups.  You can see many of the Facebook groups and businesses I’m following by looking at my Facebook page.

Twitter is the modern “bush grapevine”. Thousands of rural Australians are now on twitter.  You can find pastoral companies and people in different areas by looking at my twitter account followers.

Rural Industry Training & Extension (RITE) is a not-for-profit organisation with offices in Charters Towers and Mt Isa (Queensland). School leavers are encouraged to apply for traineeships (on-the-job training) and host employers can be assisted with various employment aspects (EG. wage information). Graduates are also helped to find a job in Queensland or the Northern Territory.

Rural job training is also available at agricultural (or ‘pastoral’) colleges, as well.   Google ‘agricultural colleges’ and you’ll find a host of Australian agricultural colleges.

There are now a number of businesses who specialise in particular types of rural jobs. These are two of the oldest rural employment businesses online:

Governess Australia is an excellent source of practical information on governessing, and a source of employment positions.

Farm Sitters Australia is an agency connecting property owners with people who want to caretake rural properties. Sometimes cattle stations are looking for a permanent caretaker (eg on an outstation), however there are many more short-term caretakers required on smaller stations, without any fulltime staff, when the owners or managers want to be away on holidays or business. January would probably be the most common month that short-term caretakers are sought, so it will either by very hot and dry or very hot and wet, and if the station is in an isolated area then it may be cut off from town by wet season rain (something that I enjoy myself, however it’s not everyone’s cup of tea). Short-term sole-responsibility caretaking positions on stations in more sparsely settled regions are generally only suitable for those with solid rural experience, because the caretaker will usually be required to run waters regularly and repair fences, waterpumps etc that break down, and be knowledgeable enough to recognise if stock are sick etc. It’s not just keeping burglars away and feeding the chooks, so this type of work is best suited to those who have worked on stations for a reasonable length of time themselves.

To see hundreds of photographs of typical cattle station work and vast outback landscapes, please refer to the books ‘Life as an Australian Horseman’ and ‘A Million Acre Masterpiece’. These two coffee-table style books have the largest number of colour photographs of Australian cattle stations ever published. These photos also have the broadest geographical spread and cover the widest range of subjects. Both these books give readers a very good insight into life and work on Australian cattle stations, spread right across northern Australia. For more information, visit Book Contents.  If you have any employment-related queries, after purchasing and reading the books and information contained on the website, please don’t hesitate to contact me with any specific queries you have and I’ll do my best to find time to respond.  (Please note this offer extends only to customers.)

Lastly…if you’re serious about giving cattle station work a red hot go, go for it!  Don’t risk being left regretting you didn’t have a crack at it.