23/11/2011 - 11:04

Flexibility vital to attract skilled workforce

23/11/2011 - 11:04

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A new approach to immigration is needed if Australia is to deal effectively with labour shortages.

A new approach to immigration is needed if Australia is to deal effectively with labour shortages.

AUSTRALIA’S skills shortage is fast becoming a key factor in determining the feasibility of major projects, and nowhere is this problem more acute than in Western Australia.

The era of competing for jobs and jealously guarding our labour market is at an end, replaced by one where skilled workers are the rare commodity and the traditionally accepted immigration paradigm has been turned on its head.

With major project investment in Australia rapidly approaching $1 trillion, and an increasing number of mega projects (each worth more than $10 billion) planned or under way, finding and retaining the workforce needed to realise the potential of these projects will be an overwhelming prosperity challenge facing both government and industry in the next decade.

Responding to this will require a new way of thinking and the acceptance that it is no longer a debate about immigration, but rather talent deployment.  

Instead of being forced to play by the old ‘tick-a-box’ immigration rules, employers and government should be looking for innovative solutions recognising an emerging economic environment that embraces global mobility and ensures Australia’s workforce requirements are addressed on a regional, rather than a national basis.

For companies, the key to winning the ongoing battle for talent is the ability to negotiate with government to create a framework that allows them to source foreign labour and deploy it where it’s needed.

The prevailing attitude of Australian business to immigration has largely confined itself to mobilising labour within the confines of the current rules. However, if businesses can identify changes to existing immigration policies that would better facilitate the mobilisation of their global workforce, they should pursue greater engagement with government to work towards the outcomes that best suit their circumstances.

Given the size and diversity of the projects being undertaken, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to Australia’s current and future skills shortage – needs differ from project to project and region to region. What may work for an offshore LNG platform off the WA coast may not apply to a NSW infrastructure project.  

A universal catch-all approach to immigration policy may create the unenviable situation where one region or sector or occupation is oversupplied while another struggles to meet its needs.

The recently introduced Enterprise Migration Agreements (EMAs) offer the perfect opportunity to develop this sort of state-based approach. As they stand, EMAs are quite narrow in scope, as they apply only to major resources sector infrastructure projects with a minimum capital investment of $2 billion and a peak workforce greater than 1,500. 

However, the current and future skill shortages extend well beyond the limited projects that would benefit from this initiative in its current form. Instead, the EMA concept could evolve into a more widely applied arrangement that works in tandem with state governments and local authorities to meet the needs of individual regions and the projects underpinning their growth.  

Ideally, Australia would benefit from a program that allows an EMA in Queensland to look different to an EMA in WA.

States should also be able to modify various temporary business immigration programs to suit their region and the projects under way within them. However, at the moment, there is only limited scope for state or regional imperatives to be taken into account in immigration planning, usually limited to long-term migration policy.

To address the short-term or periodic demands of companies or regions suffering the effects of skill shortages, consideration should be given to extending the use of state skilled migration plans to include temporary business entry. After all, if we accept that Australia is in the throes of a multi-speed economy, why not give policy scope to state governments or regional authorities to develop local programs appropriate to their specific needs?  

This could be done by refining the temporary business 457 program to create a more flexible visa class to be applied to specific regions according to their workforce needs. This would facilitate a more responsive temporary skilled migration program – one that is scalable according to the needs of the local business community.  

So, for example, if workforce needs are escalating in WA but falling in other states, the available resources should be able to be quickly and effectively deployed to the region that needs it most.

If regions are to have any influence over the landscape of their local labour markets, we need to take the politics out of this debate and the federal government will have to relax its grip on some of the levers of immigration policy.

But let’s be clear; this is not just Australia’s problem.  The resources boom and the imminent retirement of many baby boomers may mean Australia faces larger challenges than most, but the skills crisis and the mobility required to address it are global issues. The debate about immigration needs to shift from one that has traditionally taken place in the context of a narrow jurisdictional discussion to one that appreciates this is a more complex problem than any one country can solve in isolation.  

The World Economic Forum has observed that many organisations will be unable to find enough employees in their home markets to sustain profitability and growth.  It believes that human capital will soon rival – and may even surpass – financial capital as the critical economic engine of the future. 

The WEF concluded that the scope of this challenge was so broad that no single stakeholder could solve it alone. Instead, it required educational institutions, business, government and non-government organisations to work together to develop solutions that would create a new talent environment suitable for the era of workforce scarcity.

As the global competition to retain talent intensifies, it will become increasingly critical for employers to prioritise worker-retention programs. Future immigration policies also need to support the long-term career lifecycle of employees because, for many, the future will undoubtedly include cross-border work opportunities.

Recognising the importance of this, the more enlightened companies now confronting the looming global skills shortage are looking to develop ‘feeder’ programs to meet their future skilled labour needs. 

Australia’s workforce needs cannot be met by our population alone, and immigration will need to play a pivotal role in ensuring we can fully profit from existing and future project commitments.  

A step in the right direction would be achieving greater clarity on immigration policy to support short-term, discrete projects involving highly skilled staff being redeployed to Australia for periods of up to six months to work on specific projects.  

At the moment, companies wanting to deploy workers to Australia for up to six months for specific projects must rely on options such as business visa arrangements, which carry an element of compliance risk, or a 457 visa, which involves increased application requirements, including market salary equivalence.

The introduction of a sponsored project visa would accommodate the high level of project-driven labour activity in the resources, construction, IT, and energy sectors – achieving that aim in a more flexible manner than today’s enterprise migration agreements.   

The impact of the current global economic climate on economies such as Ireland and the US has created an environment where a new class of visa – one that fits neatly between the existing 456 and 457 categories – has great potential.  This ‘456½’ visa would allow skilled workers who may be struggling to find employment in depressed international markets to relocate to Australia on a temporary basis, possibly for six months to a year.

This would require a substantive shift in Australia’s existing policy framework. However, opening this visa up to workers from the likes of the US would enhance the foreign policy interests of our existing alliance and also give tens of thousands of American workers the opportunity to experience Australia while also providing some relief to Australia’s existing skills shortage.

However, the changes discussed here require a huge shift in thinking. This is not just Australia’s problem, and the search for answers cannot be confined to our shores alone.   

Instead, business needs to work with the Australian government to engage other countries in achieving the solutions that will allow them to source the workers they need, deploy them effectively, and retain them in the long term.

The critical question is whether the government will embrace different ideas and work together on these with business towards a shared goal of increased prosperity.

• Mark Wright is the national immigration leader with professional services firm Deloitte and Monish Paul is a human capital partner with Deloitte’s Perth office.


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