Op-Ed: Is Working in the Surf Industry Worth It? - Stab Mag
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Frame: Sanuk

Op-Ed: Is Working in the Surf Industry Worth It?

What’s the value of a daily go-out?

style // Mar 10, 2021
Words by LM
Reading Time: 5 minutes
An average day in the life of a surf industry worker. Video: Sanuk

It’s taken years for me to accept it. A talented student, over-qualified employee and (sometimes) great leader. Why are my peers and former classmates/co-workers earning more money?

I’m not lazy, regularly described as a hard worker. So what is holding me back? Job opportunities have come and gone, either dismissed as not having the right growth path or a poor fit from my perspective.

All around me there is acceleration, but I choose the CPI wage increase journey. Company loyalty and all that. Watching less talented people progress comes with a tinge of frustration and jealousy, but over time I’ve learnt acceptance.

Artist’s rendition: your author climbing that ladder.

Until recently, I tiptoed a line of personal insecurity whenever career and job discussions came up with mates. “I’m still doing this, but have great opportunities coming, etc etc.”

Why did I feel that way? It was my choice not to climb the corporate ladder. I don’t value ass-kissers, and as previously mentioned, I could never convince myself of the merits of most opportunities that hit my radar. 

Since I was 17, I have been employed in the surf industry. Seventeen years of it now — ranging from shop floor kid, store manager, retail business manager, sales-rep, key account team and brand manager. For 17 years I have been able to surf every day if I wanted to, work with products that I am passionate about, and be surrounded by like-minded people.

I’ve learnt a lot, changed positions and companies a few times, and had the pleasure of meeting with and working for some amazing humans. Like everyone, the best lessons have come from the challenges, and in a career that has endured the highs and lows of the surf industry, there have been plenty. Luckily the leaders around me have always found a way to prevail.

Jobs come and go in our industry. Some pay super-well, but I float along at the lower end of the management chain, enjoying the perks that I value more than anything: flexibility and lifestyle.

How do those perks look? 

Artist’s rendition: your author at lunch break. Photo: Carey

Six-to-eight foot and offshore—my phone is going to be hard to reach. Beautiful weather and a late-arvo grovel… same deal. Even depths of winter slop in booties and a hood… I’m surfing if I want to. In my performance review this year, my boss highlighted that I am clearly happier if I’m surfing/on the water and I need to block out time to make sure this happens.

My mates are in their money-making years, developing property or earning $250k+ in corporate roles. They often comment on how lucky I am in our industry — “I wish I could surf every day, can’t believe you work with that brand or product, etc.” For some of them, working from home during COVID is giving them a glimpse of the lifestyle route, and they’re reassessing.

Who has chosen the right path? Difficult to say — would I rather be the guy who retires at 55 and spends the last 20 years of his active life surfing Noosa, the Maldives, and Mentawais on a quiver of barely-used McTavish funboards? Or the fit and healthy guy clocking up the ocean time over the next 30 years but still part of our nation’s workforce when he is 65?

Artist’s rendition: your author at lunch break at 87.

A change of scenery could be the answer. Similar roles in other industries earn 1.5 times our wage. Sure, there might be a microscope on the best use of your time, and no one is scheduling appointments with you at the beach, but there is still a bit of time to surf and enjoy a lifestyle far superior to the corporate climbers.

A good mate just went through the spin cycle in a surf company restructure, finding himself out the door and into one of these jobs. He offered this advice: “I hate my job — not the job itself, but having nothing in common with our customers and my co-workers. The grass was greener, but not for long.”

What are the other options? A mature-age apprenticeship would be tough with a mortgage and our current family situation. I’ve done enough manual labour to know I’m capable of jumping into a non-ticketed trade (ie. landscaping, concreting, maintenance, etc), but do I want to? These jobs offer similar flexibility and lifestyle, and truth be told, a well-run business could comfortably eclipse my current earning potential.

Watching the beach carparks fill up with trade vehicles at 3.30 pm on any given weekday makes me realize these guys (and gals) are clearly on a good wicket. Fit, healthy, mostly outdoors, scheduling work around a 16-day forecast. This is probably the back-up plan should the surf industry dream come crashing down. But is it something I am passionate about? At this point, I probably can’t see myself posting recently-completed landscape projects on Insta. All respect to those who do, but I am still immersed in surf.

Artist’s rendition: Not your author

For those of us with a grom on the way, the long-term play is clearly a constant consideration. Plenty have done it before me — kids arrive, chuck in the towel and start climbing the ladder to a bigger income and perceived financial security. Family of course comes first, but what defines quality of life? As the son of two government employees, we didn’t grow up with too much, but we had every opportunity: holidays at the beach, epic experiences, all the material possessions, sport/hobbies catered for, good friends, family, and community.

It probably raises a bigger question — when is enough “enough”? And what really matters to me?

I wish we could pay off our mortgage in 10 years, put our (future) kids through private school, and have no money worries… but the truth is (and it might be selfish), flexibility and balance is what we crave, and you can’t put a price on that. Add family to the mix and I’ll be made.

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