A remarkable set of numbers lies behind the federal government’s new skilled migration policy.
LAST year, 170,000 people applied to move to Australia under skilled migration programs. The number of places available was just 108,100.
That should have presented Australian authorities with an ideal opportunity to select the best and brightest, whose skills and knowledge matched local needs.
In practice, Immigration Minister Chris Evans says the system has been delivering far too many self-nominated migrants from a narrow range of occupations, with poor to moderate English language skills who struggle to find work in their nominated occupation.
Accountants, cooks and hairdressers, apparently, are at the heart of the problem.
Over the past five years, for instance, more than 40,000 unsponsored visas have been issued to accountants.
Despite that, there is a chronic shortage of experienced accountants, apparently because many of these migrants did not find work in their chosen field.
Cooking is another trade with a mismatch. Currently there are about 12,000 unsponsored cooks who have applied for visas, a number well in excess of estimated demand.
The Migration Occupations in Demand List (MODL) is part of the problem.
A 2006 survey of new migrants who came in under the MODL list found that, after 18 months, a third were either unemployed or working in an unskilled job.
The points test used to assess skilled migrants is another part of the problem.
Senator Evans said this week that a Rhodes Scholar would not pass the points test if they took a degree in chemistry, mathematics or economics.
However, aspiring cooks and hairdressers can come to Australia, obtain qualifications in less than two years, and gain permanent residence soon after.
Little wonder that the number of foreign students in vocational and English-language courses in Australia has nearly tripled in the past four years to about 205,000.
Senator Evans announced this week a package of policy changes that tackle these and other problems. He has evidently listened to the states and business, and heard that the skilled migration system needs to be more responsive to the changing needs of employers.
The broad thrust of his reforms is highly commendable and should help to address looming skilled labour shortages, but a lot rests on the detail of the new policies.
The minister’s ambitious goal is to make immigration “the job matching agency for the nation, connecting employers to the global labour market where skills cannot be sourced locally”.
In particular, he wants the system to be less supply-driven and more demand-driven.
This is already happening. Sponsored migrants have gone from 29 per cent of the total in 2007-08 to 53 per cent in the current year.
The government will continue to give top priority to employers who want to sponsor individual migrants.
Independent skilled migrants will fill the residual places. With the abolition of MODL, they will need to satisfy a new, more targeted Skilled Occupations List (SOL), to be prepared by Skills Australia.
The intent of this policy is commendable, with Senator Evans saying the new arrangements bring skilled migration into the fold of national skills planning.
Many industry groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA, have for some time been calling for this type of approach.
But I’d suggest we should wait for the detail before passing judgement. If the MODL failed to stay attuned to industry needs, why should the SOL be any better?
Senator Evans confidently said this week that Skills Australia “has identified the specialist skills we need to plan for”, but he didn’t provide any details beyond the folksy comment that “country towns can’t do without a local GP or mechanic”. The reality is that many country towns have been doing just that for years.
Another welcome change is giving state governments the ability to establish their own migration plans.
This will be an extension of the existing policy under which state and territory governments nominated 14,000 skilled migrants last year to meet particular needs.
The WA government, along with the CCI and Chamber of Minerals & Energy, have been pushing for state migration plans for several years.
We will watch with keen interest to see if Canberra can accommodate the aspirations of the states and business groups.