Since the 90s, Australia has had an enviable annual economic growth rate of 3%. But take out our healthy population growth rate of 1.4% per year, and it’s a less impressive 1.6%. According to a Forbes article last month, “Australia isn’t an economic miracle. It’s a demographic miracle.”
Make no mistake, our population growth is down to one thing: immigration.
And yet, even though many industries in Australia are crying out for help with skills shortages, immigration remains a divisive topic, and changes introduced this year seem to be deliberately avoiding addressing many of the skills shortages.
The current approach to skilled migration is a complete reversal of the demand-driven model that was introduced in 2012, where employers were actively encouraged to sponsor overseas employees who fulfilled needs. These temporary migrants became permanent once they had been employed and sponsored for two years.
This process still exists for a limited number of occupations, but for most, skilled migrants will now be granted a two-year 457 visa followed by another one for two years, and then they are out, with no recourse for any further visa.
In addition, skills shortage occupation lists are changing every six months, doing little to provide industries with any certainty.
Processing times for 457 visas have also slowed to a sluggish 4–5 months, a time frame that allows for the occupation list to have changed, leaving many applications redundant.
Some notable areas where skill shortages are a real issue are childcare, agriculture, hospitality and aged care.
New regulations touted for March 2018 will see the skill set requirement bar for childcare Room Leaders raised to three years of work experience post-qualification, which will not allow these graduates to be sponsored. In addition, the occupation of Room Leader may no longer appear on the regional list due to perceived exploitation of this entry to permanent residence, despite the high demand for this important role.
Agriculture is another industry where there are clearly gaps and needs for workers who simply do not fit into the usual occupation lists. Industry labour agreements that are strictly monitored could be a recourse in this area, and it is vital that government does not throw out this option.
In Australia, there are huge shortages of chefs, cooks and restaurant managers, the latter two roles now unable to be sponsored for a permanent visa in Australia. Changes to the 457 visa announced, requiring applicants to have two years’ work experience post-qualification, will create a lack of pathways to permanent residency for applicants, discouraging them from committing four years of their lives to working in Australia in this area.
Aged care is another area where there are not enough skilled workers and skilled migration needs to assist, but with these new changes, the government is closing the door on this solution.
One thing all these occupations have in common is that they are highly skilled, but not considered to be so by the Department.
As a society, it’s clear we cannot manage without these vital roles, and that they are all highly skilled functions. Yet the salaries – and therefore the taxes collected – are uniformly low for these kinds of jobs, diminishing their perceived value and is perhaps a reason why our youth population are not seeking to go into these areas despite clear demand.
If we do not revisit what is a highly skilled occupation and what is not, are we adding to our problems?
The main options left to these industries suffering skills shortages are industry labour agreements, a special contract with the Department of Immigration negotiating for a skill set, salary and occupation that is not on any other list. The government needs to ensure they keep this option open while considering revisiting the migration program.
In a country like Australia, economic growth has usually followed immigration growth. Immigration has built our cities and communities and has always been an important stimulus for economic prosperity.
A recent citizenship bill has just been thrown out of Parliament, which is indicative that government’s hard-line approach to multiculturalism is not in line with the thinking of our leaders or the public.
The government would surely benefit from rethinking its current stance on migration, seeking further advice from industry, and basing its decisions more on economic evidence rather than just the advice of a group of academic researchers and policy makers.