Regional pandemic migrants keeping their city jobs: report

A gravel road between an avenue of trees
The report found there was greater access to flexible work options for people on higher incomes working in permanent or ongoing employment. Image: Shire of Hepburn

People who migrated to regional Australia during COVID were more likely to retain their metro-based employment rather than working in their new regional hometown – and they’re keen to keep it that way, a new report has found.

The report The Great Migration: Leaving our cities for the regions from the University of Melbourne’s Future of Work Lab reveals significant changes to working patterns in regional Victoria since the COVID-19 pandemic began and shows the desire for flexible working arrangements to become more permanent.

From October to December 2021, researchers surveyed 416 recent internal migrants to regional Victoria to gain a better understanding of the current working patterns and future work aspirations of people who have migrated to the regions from metropolitan areas across Australia.

The results show a strong association between remote working, income, and education, with 69 per cent of people who migrated to a regional location holding a degree or higher qualification – exceeding the national average of 50 per cent.

Of survey respondents who were employed, the majority – 66 per cent – were professionals, followed by managers and clerical staff.

Lead author of the report Dr Peter Ghin said the data showed there was greater access to flexible work options for people on higher incomes working in permanent or ongoing employment.

“People with degree qualifications and those in higher income categories – so-called ‘knowledge workers’ – had greater access to workplace flexibility and were far more likely to be working remotely in the regions,” Dr Ghin said.

“The findings also indicate that remote working favours those who are employed in more secure employment, with permanent employees making up 71 per cent of surveyed people that were working remotely in regional Victoria.

“While these options present opportunities for a particular class of workers who can reap the benefits of remote working, they are also likely to disadvantage lower paid and less secure workers, as they become priced out of an increasingly competitive regional housing and rental market.”

The report also shows people migrating to the regions are increasingly retaining their metro-based employment rather than moving to work for regional employers. Prior to the pandemic, only 40 per cent of people had ties to metro employment but this increased to 65 per cent post-COVID. A comparison between pre and post-COVID data shows the number of dual-income households in regional Victoria in which both partners work for metro-based employers has more than doubled since the pandemic began.

Of the respondents who worked remotely for a metro-based employer, 65 per cent strongly agreed that post-pandemic they would prefer to continue to work from home between 2-3 days per week, and 66 per cent strongly disagreed with the idea of returning to their pre-COVID work arrangements.

Dr Ghin said the findings show the profound impact remote working has had on accelerating metro-regional migration during the pandemic.

“However, it is necessary to ensure that these benefits do not come at a cost for regional Victorian communities by entrenching inequality of access to affordable housing, jobs and services, but instead support a robust regional economy,” he said.

“Regional Victoria has become a hot destination for many ‘lifestyle’ migrants from metropolitan Melbourne but we’re really only beginning to understand the challenges and opportunities of this shift for regional communities.”