05/11/2009 - 00:00

It’s not plain sailing on skilled migration

05/11/2009 - 00:00


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A shortage of workers presents ongoing challenges across government and the community.

WITH the boom we can’t talk about creating demand for more workers, it is clear that the state and federal governments need to work out a coherent policy that is going to help Western Australia make the most of this growth period.

A couple of weeks ago I did an economic outlook update for the newspaper and sought guidance from a number of analysts from this field.

Most believed that WA had pretty much bottomed out and was set for another period of strong growth. ACIL Tasman director Ian Satchwell was among the most bullish and warned that the state needs a population and workforce policy to deal with the looming issue of labour shortages.

Mr Satchwell pointed to two reports put together in the previous boom conditions, which highlighted the issue and remain relevant as WA returns to bullish forecasts of growth.

The State Training Board predicted the need for around 18,000 new jobs per year between 2006 and 2016 in its ‘Beyond the Resources Boom’ report, while the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA estimated the number of jobs in the state will increase by as many as 400,000 over the same period.

An average of those would be close to 300,000 workers required, a staggering number in anyone’s language.

So where will these workers come from?

Past experience shows that WA’s mining sector is not a convincing lure for Australians living outside our state.

While we have had net interstate migration recently, it seems clear the incentives offered here in the west are not compelling enough for the underemployed of the east coast to up sticks and come on over.

To be fair, rising costs in WA – especially housing – reduce the incentive for people to leave other Australian states where they may already own a home. WA is a distant location more foreign to many Australians than New Zealand or Fiji. Why would they come here if the cost is too great and they can already capitalise on the boom by soaking up the big licks of federal revenue and taxes generated by resources?

Perhaps the feds could use some of the oil and gas royalty revenue to pay the relocation costs of skilled interstate migrants? Dream on.

To complicate matters, Queensland is expected to boom again as well, this time matching WA more closely with its own version of an LNG industry making the competition for skills even tougher. If you were living in the back blocks of dilapidated NSW where would you head for work, distant WA or nearby Queensland?

Training people to fill vacancies is another great furphy. The truth is, even if we had the best training system we’d still be short of workers, both skilled and unskilled. Manpower is the real issue.

So we need to look overseas to supplement our workforce.

As we know, that comes with huge challenges, especially as we may well have picked the eyes out of the skills we need in nations that we have been most culturally aligned with in the past. Is there a bobby left in Britain who still wants to come to the antipodes? We’ve already imported thousands so it’s likely that there are fewer to draw upon.

The first issue with migration is to get the federal government to realise that WA is a special case and make sure visas are obtainable and the bureaucracy that administers them understands their value to the nation.

They have already done us a big disservice by cracking down on 457 visas and turfing people out of the country. Not only will businesses have to go through the same painful process of bringing replacements into the country, they’ll have to overcome negative sentiment created by those who were sent packing.

Even many who come here on student visas are treated poorly. It is interesting to note that some very smart people in strong academic disciplines have little chance of staying here while those that study something as simple as hospitality provides a much easier route to a permanent visa.

If someone can earn a real degree at a WA university, I’d invite them to stay in WA.

Another issue we’ll have to face is a cultural one. Already we are seeing WA changing dramatically with growing populations from India and Africa adding to our existing multicultural mix.

This requires significant resources to manage. Apart from federal authorities needing to be vigilant that these are the right people to reward by accepting them into Australia, the state has a big part to play too.

Schools need to be able to deal with children that may have language issues, as will many other community services. Hospitality and other service providers need to be able to respond to these new customer demands without being bound by red tape.

Housing affordability is also a massive issue. We have seen the debate rage recently around property prices, with elements of the community accusing developers of hoarding land to keep prices high.

But just because land is zoned urban doesn’t mean developers can subdivide. The process of approvals is laborious even with such zoning. The process of such approvals inflates the costs and holds up development.

Perhaps government needs to put its own resources into pre-approving land. Perhaps there is a case for the state to make a call on identifying certain big tracts of land that can gain fast-track approval so the housing stock can keep pace with the arrival of migrants to create the workforce we need.

Migration should not only be seen as a one-way street in terms of being a solution to internal workforce issues.

Just as WA’s government targeted law enforcement and health workers in places such as Britain, perhaps our broader migration policy should concentrate on regions or countries with future potential for us, including China.

Those who come here for work today may also help create future cultural and trading links with the lands they have left.

Immigration from the Indian Ocean rim nations makes a lot of sense, potentially helping to strengthen our influence in our own region.

There are also growth nations in places like Africa, Asia and South America; those with which we share a strong primary resources heritage and a history of democracy ought to have priority when it comes to immigration.



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