There has been encouraging policy progress on dealing with labour shortages but there’s still work to be done.
THE federal government delivered some welcome good news last week when Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced a key change to skilled migration; but why did it take so long?
Mr Bowen told an Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA) conference that Perth will be considered a regional city and will therefore benefit from inclusion in the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme.
The minister said this would provide employers with an easier avenue to recruit skilled workers from overseas; in particular, employers in Perth will get a share of the 16,000 places specifically allocated for the regional scheme this year.
It will also give skilled temporary visa holders in Perth a more streamlined pathway to permanent migration.
The change has been a long time coming; state governments, Labor and Liberal, have been calling for at least five years for Perth to be categorised as a regional city.
Until now, these calls have fallen on deaf ears, as successive ministers timidly explored potential reforms designed to make the skilled migration system more flexible and responsive to industry needs.
The reform process has often been swayed by political and community concern over the rogue employers who have abused the system.
As a result, policy makers have not paid sufficient heed to the difficulties facing many businesses struggling to meet their staffing needs.
Labour shortages are set to get worse, judging by a Deloitte Access Economics report out this week, which focused on the impact of remarkably strong investment in the resource sector.
It predicted the problem would be particularly acute here in the west.
“While Western Australia’s growth is set to accelerate sharply, a lack of skilled labour means it won’t be able to accelerate at anything like the pace its businesses would like to see. You can expect skill shortages, material shortages, rapid labour turnover and delays in deliveries,” the report said.
However, it said the issue would extend nationally.
“The pressure from high exchange and interest rates is making life extremely uncomfortable in much of manufacturing, as well as in tourism, parts of education, for retailers, and in farming.
“Moreover, as the straitjacket on skilled workers is tightened over the next two years, many of the latter list of sectors will also find they face unwelcome wage pressure from mining and construction.”
It seems the federal government is waking up to the magnitude of this issue, judging by a series of policy reforms adopted over the past year.
These include an increase in the national skilled migration program, and the introduction of Enterprise Migration Agreements (EMAs), which are designed to help large projects bring in temporary workers.
Regional Migration Agreements will also be introduced, to help high-growth regions where local labour is not available. Mr Bowen listed Esperance as a region that may benefit.
Processing of section 457 visa applications is also improving; the average time has been reduced to 22 days and the federal government’s target is 10 days.
While these and other changes are positive, much more could be done.
AMMA chief executive Steve Knott last week listed several reform priorities to the current skilled migration scheme.
These include reducing the onerous nature of the English language proficiency testing.
The AMMA also wants EMAs to apply to more projects. The current thresholds, including $2 billion of capital spending and a peak workforce of 1500, mean that just 14 projects will be eligible for the program at the outset, according to the minister.
The industry estimates that if the thresholds were reduced to $1 billion and 500 staff, a further 23 projects would be eligible.
WA Workplace Relations Minister Peter Collier has his own reform wish list, which includes:
• providing greater flexibility, by expanding the type of skilled occupations that qualify for 457 visas;
• expanding the use of working holiday and student visas;
• considering incentives to increase the level of foreign students entering Australia and to encourage them to join the domestic workforce;
• reviewing the proposed new points test requirements for the Skilled Migration Program; and
• reviewing the allocation of state-sponsored visas.
These proposals indicate how much more can, and should, be achieved in this area.