Home and away
In the 1950s, society shifted when women entered the workforce. Now in the 2000s, more people are moving away from the nine-to-five grind in search of the fly-in fly-out lifestyle. But as Tom and Carly Smith explain, there is a lot to consider, especially when there are children involved.
Eighteen-month-old Estelle Smith hands a tiny teacup filled with air to her mum, Carly, and another to her dad, Tom. She smiles and then walks over to the back door, where the family dog, Frankie is awaiting her attention.
She’s still so young, unable to comprehend the concept of fly-in fly-out, but when her family is together, Estelle is intuitively happier.
“It’s only really started to get hard for her the last two times he’s been gone,” Carly says.
“Time hasn’t really meant anything until now, so she didn’t really understand it before. The last time that he left she was quite upset about it and every day was asking where he was and that was hard.”
Tom has worked to a FIFO schedule since entering the oil drilling industry as a Year 12 graduate in 2003, so for this Mountain Creek family, it’s not a means of making a quick buck; it’s a career choice, a way of life, and they have learned to make it work.
“When I got into it, I was two weeks out of school and didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career,” Tom says.
“Century Drilling had gone to the high school offering a traineeship in safety and rig work and I applied for that, but instead was offered a lease hands position, which is entry into the drilling side of the rigs. It kind of fell in my lap, which I’m very lucky.”
This was before coal seam gas “kicked off” and before working FIFO was as common as it is today.
“These days so many people do it for a short time to bring in some extra money, but because of how long you’ve been doing it and it was in a different time, it is a career. It’s always been a bit different for us,” Carly says.
It was definitely easier before kids, I’ve never really had any problems going back to work, you might miss out on a few social events, whereas now you’re missing important things everyday, which makes it harder.”
Tom and Carly grew up in the small Queensland town of Allora, where they attended the same school. But it wasn’t until a few years later, having repeatedly run into each other at the local pub, that they struck up a relationship in 2009.
At the time, Tom was working in Nigeria, Africa, before he returned to Australia and they subsequently moved to and settled into life on the Sunshine Coast in 2011, and where they married in 2015.
For the majority of their time together, Tom has worked a 28-day roster, which is a godsend in FIFO, however this year has been more sporadic as he’s moved between oil rigs in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in West Africa, Malaysia, and his current location in Thailand.
“It was definitely easier before kids, I’ve never really had any problems going back to work, you might miss out on a few social events, whereas now you’re missing important things everyday, which makes it harder,” Tom says.
“But at the same time, when I come home I get to have a whole month of uninterrupted time.
“And that’s an opportunity most people don’t get when working normal hours, even things like taking Estelle to swimming lessons and experiencing a lot of those things other parents don’t get to,” Carly adds.
“When Tom’s home we love it. People say, ‘I don’t know how you do it’, and I try not to complain about it too much because we do have it really good, we have so much time together as a family and Tom and Estelle have such a good relationship.”
Tom says the other obvious benefit is financial, especially as it has allowed Carly to be a stay-at-home mum while Estelle is young, and now raise their second daughter Lucille, born last month. It may also allow Tom to retire earlier, and enjoy the fruits of his labour.
While they are positive about their FIFO experience, they’re also pragmatic, admitting it does lead to Tom missing a lot of their children’s life changes.
“How much has Estelle changed in the last three months?” Carly says to Tom.
“It’s like you missed the change from baby to toddler, you came home and she’s talking away. It makes you realise how much happens in that time.”
“Estelle just wanted me to settle her, whereas previously he was always putting her to sleep. It’s hard for Tom to come back in and everything has completely changed, it’s like, ‘What’s my role?’.”
Tom adds, “And because Carly is here every day, she probably doesn’t see it as much, but when I come home, it’s like, ‘Wow’. We do try and ‘Facetime’ every day, so I can see her, but you can only see so much with that.”
When Tom comes home, the Smith family goes through a “transition period”, as is often the case with FIFO families.
“The first time he came back, after we’d had Estelle, it was so weird because everything changes so much with their development. Tom is quite hands on and we were sharing it equally and when he left he had all of these roles, but when he came back everything had changed,” Carly says.
“For example, Estelle just wanted me to settle her, whereas previously he was always putting her to sleep. It’s hard for Tom to come back in and everything was completely changed, it’s like ‘What’s my role?’ It’s about him trying to find his place every time he comes home and me trying to find room for him again.”
As Tom prepares to head back to work in a few days, after a blissful week at home, they soak up this precious time together. FIFO may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for this beautiful family it’s theirs.