My plan to study abroad in Australia had fallen apart during college, so I began researching my options. With the intention to travel and work for one year, an Australian Working/Holiday Visa was the perfect solution. I applied online and, within three days, my eVisa had arrived directly in my inbox. I was locked, loaded and legally allowed to work. In order to finance my next move, I was going to have to sell some things. I timed everything just right, and sold the most expensive thing I owned: my car. Visions danced in my head. I would travel. And then I would find a job in a bar on the beach where I would serve drinks to scantily-clad women who would obviously swoon over my sexy American accent. This was shaping up to be the best time of my life!
Working/Holiday Visas in Australia
Before I begin to tell you how I made money working in Australia and how I found a job working overseas as a bartender, let me first give a run down on how to legally work in Australia.
Getting a Working/Holiday Visa in Australia is a relatively painless process. At the time of this article, a standard visa costs USD$460, which is payable after filling out an online application form (official information on fees and charges). My application was approved within three business days and I was allowed to travel anytime within 12 months of being approved. There are two applications, depending on your country of residence (Subclass 417: Info/Apply, Subclass 462: Info/Apply) and there are some basic regulations. You are given 12 months of travel and can legally work in Australia, in one position, for one particular venue, for up to six months. You are not allowed to maintain the same position at the same venue for longer than six months. However, if you receive a promotion to something like Events Manager, (which is often just used as a glorified title), you can continue to work at the same place [Editor’s side note: this is key]. Some paperwork is required on behalf of the employer, so you’ll have to be good enough that your manager will actually want to keep you on board. Otherwise, you can just switch venues and work for someone else. Holders of the Working/Holiday Visa subclass 462 (i.e. Americans) aren’t allowed a second year visa, but residents of many other countries are, as long as they are holders of a subclass 417 visa. In order to be granted a second year, three months of documented farm work is required. The government wants to make sure that anybody who stays is contributing to the largest industry in Australia, which is agriculture. Once completed, you can get your visa and go back to working in hospitality. Some farmers will accept a hefty payment or bribe in exchange for falsifying your papers, but this is a painstakingly difficult and precarious procedure which, should you be found out, puts your visa and the farm at risk. I’ve known people who have paid off farmers, only to have their visas revoked while the farm was shut down. (More information on Working/Holiday Visas in Australia)
Working in Australia as a Bartender
I arrived in Cairns, Australia, after one long flight and two incredible months of backpacking. I had spent my savings in its entirety (and then some), so I began searching for jobs. I drafted a fake CV (yes, really) and began passing out copies at local restaurants, bars and clubs. I also used the Australian craigslist equivalent, Gumtree, to send out cover letters to hiring managers. After only three days on the hunt, I received a callback from a local backpacker nightclub. Even though I was looking for a job bartending, I was offered a position as a glassy and a barback, whose job was to stock the bar and pick up plastic glasses from the ground, beneath the tables everybody was dancing on, while they spilled their $3 rum and cokes over my head. I wasn’t serving drinks, there were no beaches, and there weren’t any girls in bikinis (but we did have Wet T-Shirt Wednesdays). I cleaned up piss and puke, carried dirty buckets of glassware and lugged dripping bags of rubbish up and down stairs. I pushed my way through drunkards, and dealt with general idiocy on a nightly basis But, despite this, we had fun. We were like a family. We snuck shots of Jagermeister when we could, which made the night far more manageable, but this was not a lush position. I was at the bottom of the food chain. However, believe it or not, the money was pretty good.
Bartending Wages in Australia
Different regions of Australia have different wage regulations. Depending on the venue, and what it is legally classified as, they pay either a flat, hourly wage or they pay what is called “penalty wages.” The term is counterintuitive but, what it means is that you are paid depending on the specific time of day that you work. There is a base wage and, as the hours (or days) become more inconvenient to the employee, the pay goes up. Here, at this nightclub, in 2010, I was earning $15/hr as a base wage before midnight. Between 12am and 3am I was earning $22/hr, and after 3am I was earning $30/hr. On Sundays we earned $30/hr all day. Sometimes, on public holidays, I was earning almost $40/hr. I would usually work from 10pm until 6am which, based on the numbers above, would net me between $180-$250/day. After taxes I would pull in $800-1000 every week, which was more than enough to save, assuming I lived relatively cheaply, which is easy enough in Australia, if you plan everything right.
Working/Holiday Jobs in Australia
The reality of working in Australia on a Working/Holiday Visa is that the most jobs are in hospitality and tourism. Bars, cafes and restaurants abound, while travel agencies dot almost every street of every town. The two are heavily intertwined, often working in conjunction with each other. There are big advantages to working within these industries and, if you work in hospitality (i.e. bars, restaurants, etc.), you can cash in big time. Not only do you get a job that pays relatively well, you often get a few free drinks and two square meals per day. How’s that for a hookup, when your only expenses are accommodation, booze and instant noodles? I started as a “bar bitch” in Cairns but, when I moved to Melbourne, I got a shot behind the bar. I earned $14/hr, got a little bar experience under my belt, and then moved to the bar next door (rivalry, anyone?) where I was earning a flat wage of $20/hr for five, 10-hour shifts per week. The money was a little less, but the job was more manageable, the hours were more reasonable and I was living a (somewhat) healthier lifestyle than I had been in Cairns. I was still taking home at least $800/week.
Moving to Australia: the Lifestyle
Here, I wore my sunnies to work, served drinks to beautiful women in bikini tops and worked on my tan from behind the bar. After only six months away from home, I was actually living my dream. I love working in hospitality. It’s very social and the perks can be great. You form tight relationships with the people you work with because nobody else works those crazy hours, meaning you’re the only people who are still keen for a drink after work at 6am or on a random Tuesday night when everybody else is home in bed. Good friends, a few drinks on the beach, schmoozing with strangers, and life is good. You get discounts in most bars and restaurants around town, and you take full advantage of that! Working in bars means you’ll usually find yourself on either side of one! You will sleep during the day, walk to work as the sun sets over the beach, and live by the night. But that’s fine, because everything is more interesting once the sun goes down.
Making Money Traveling the World and Build a Career
Many people choose to use hospitality jobs in Australia as a means to simply earn money while they travel, and it works very well to serve that purpose. I took it a step further, though, and, after my 12 months in Australia were up, I moved to New Zealand to continue traveling and working. Wages aren’t as good in New Zealand, and the cost of living is even higher [Editor side note: I think this has changed drastically in recent years, as Australia, especially major cities are really expensive to live in], but I ended up working with some very talented people from all over the world. They trained me up and I learned about flavor profiles, beer, spirits and wines, creative garnishes, deep frozen glassware, and other techniques which are only reserved for true bar professionals. And, as it turns out, I’m not half bad at it (or so I’ve been told, and so I’d like to believe!). I love being creative, designing and producing tangible products that people can consume and truly appreciate and enjoy. To date, I have worked in beach bars and nightclubs in Australia, some of the best cocktail bars all over New Zealand, and in Beijing’s finest and most well-renowned cocktail bar. It has allowed me to travel to different parts of the world while doing something that I love. Through traveling and working in hospitality in Australia, I’ve developed an entirely new career direction which has been fruitful, and surely will continue to be, for years to come.