Rewards flow in the rugged tropics
WHEN some Australians start a new job in Papua New Guinea, the first thing they do is book a ticket on the next flight home.
Life in the steamy, tropical country can be a shock to many who don’t come prepared for its unique social and business climate. Poverty, infrastructure problems and a sense of isolation can often be too much for some to bear.
But for those who persist, the rewards and job satisfaction that follow can be significant. Indeed some enjoy it so much, they vow never to leave.
For territory manager with Australian company Pronto Software, John Woolfield, doing business there has become a long- term proposition.
For the past 10 years he’s looked after the company’s PNG client base, commuting every fortnight from his office in Brisbane. Pronto supplies enterprise resource planning ( ERP) software to a range of government and private- sector organisations in the country.
Before joining Pronto, Mr Woolfield lived in PNG for eight years, working for a heavy machinery company involved in the mining industry, and he’s developed a clear picture of what it takes to make a success of working in the country.
‘‘ It’s a fascinating place for people who have an open mind,’’ he says. ‘‘ But some people can’t handle things that are too different. If someone’s spent all their life in Toorak, they may well have some issues. But others who perhaps have been exposed to other socio- economic conditions should be able to come to terms with things.’’
PNG’s six- million strong population relies overwhelmingly on subsistence agriculture for its livelihood. Indeed, according to government research, only 18 per cent of residents live in urban areas.
Because of PNG’s rugged terrain, vast areas of the country are yet to be explored by westerners. Outside the cities and towns, infrastructure and services are sparse at best and often non- existent.
For most foreign workers, it takes some time to adjust to such conditions. Add the barriers of language and a lack of knowledge of local customs and the learning curve becomes even steeper.
‘‘ Some companies will fly people up ( from Australia) for a week so they can see what it is like before they accept a new job,’’ says Mr Woolfield. ‘‘ It gives them an idea of what life will be like for them.’’
He says Pronto’s decision to run its PNG operations remotely from Queensland, with staff making regular visits to clients, made commercial sense for a range of reasons. The cost and complexity of setting up a local office, together with the challenges of finding suitable staff made the exercise simply too difficult.
By operating on a fly- in, fly- out basis, companies such as Pronto can provide the staff they need as and when they are required by their local customers.
On each two- week stay, Pronto staff tend to base themselves in a hotel, or occasionally in an apartment for stays of longer duration. Because getting around urban areas can be a challenge, clients tend to pick staff up from their accommodation in the morning and return them after work.
When it comes to doing business in PNG, a lot can hinge on the way in which individual relationships are established and fostered. ‘‘ Business is very much relationship orientated,’’ says Mr Woolfield. ‘‘ The local people’s ability to remember names and faces is part of their culture, and memories can be quite long.’’
Foreign workers and business people should realise that it will take some time to establish key relationships and get a feel for the way in which foreigners should behave when in the country.
‘‘ Because I had already lived there for eight years I knew the rules and my way around,’’ he says. ‘‘ I didn’t have to have a third party to point me in the right direction. But if you are new that is one thing you’ll require.’’
While he’s never felt at risk while working in PNG, Mr Woolfield says it is a matter of using commonsense and being aware of your surroundings at all times. While there is a level of animosity towards foreigners working in the country, by being circumspect it’s possible to remain safe at all times.
‘‘ It comes down to how you play it.’’ he says. ‘‘ If you display your wealth and your power, then you could look at that as making yourself a target. You just need to know the limits, and you don’t go to places unless you are comfortable.’’
Despite the challenges, Mr Woolfield says the personal satisfaction that comes from working in and contributing to the communities within PNG is significant. For an interesting and vibrant place to work, the country is hard to beat.