As Luck Wood Have It

Cameron Gooley paid for uni by working in a timber mill.

Cameron Gooley paid for uni by working in a timber mill.

The worst job I’ve ever had was working at my local timber mill. I was in year 12, I lived in a small country town in southern New South Wales, and I really wanted to go to Sydney University when I finished. I planned to attend a residential college so that I could make friends once I moved to the city.  But college fees are expensive, and the cost of living in Sydney is much higher than in the town I was raised in. I needed money, and lots of it.

Working at the mill was your typical, ‘hard yakka’, blue-collar labour. Sometimes the hours were a bit messed up, and the shifts were long, but the pay was pretty good—considering that my only other option was the local IGA.

My work varied from day to day, depending on where I was needed. Sometimes I worked on the wrapping station, using an industrial strength staple gun to wrap different plastics over 600-kilo blocks of wooden planks to separate them by grade. Other days I worked on the wood chuck station, which was where the extra little bits of wood that were cut off of planks would roll down a conveyor belt before being turned into sawdust.  I would have to throw out any bad wood and stop the conveyor belt from jamming. That was probably the most stressful duty at the mill—trying to stop it from jamming was like trying to stop rain by throwing bricks into the sky.

I hated every moment I worked at that mill. It wasn’t the physical labour, the aching feet from standing up for eight hours at a time, or even the constant and (literally) deafening sound of machinery that made me hate it.

What made me hate that mill were the people.

Don’t misunderstand me; they were all lovely, just working for a living. But they were not happy people.

There was a woman in her sixties who had worked in that mill for her whole life, the only time I saw her smile was when she found out I was going to uni.  There was a man who was barely even twenty who just needed a decent paying job to support his kids.

None of the workers were there because they wanted to be. They were there because they had to be, because my town offered so few other opportunities.

Of the 25 people in my year who made it to year 12, only about half got ATARs. Most of those with good grades were expected to pick up trades, but few actually managed to get an apprenticeship. They can be just as competitive as getting into uni if you don’t have any connections. Most trades were reserved for men, except hairdressing. Probably half the women I went to high school with are now hairdressers—the vast majority of them casualised, because of an oversupply.

In poor rural areas like this, it’s hard to get on your feet. Many of my coworkers weren’t able to pursue trades, or be business owners, or even finish high school. Things like unpaid internships, living at home while you study, and easy to use public transport aren’t options for people in rural areas. And if you think they should just go somewhere else with more opportunity, keep in mind that moving and job hunting require savings that many people in these communities simply don’t have. The price of failure is too high—it’s much more viable to work as an unskilled labourer in a low socio-economic area than it is to risk being homeless in the city.

Working at that mill was a harsh reminder of what many people in country live with, and what many of us take for granted.

It is unfair that these people have been robbed of their dreams. They haven’t failed or decided not to pursue their ambitions; they have been denied the chance to even attempt them.

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