Breaking down the barriers

by Iain Hopkins23 Apr 2012

For many Australian companies the concept of a ‘borderless workforce’ is extremely difficult to grasp – but the hard fact is, Australia doesn’t have enough of the right skills to sustain current projects. 

In some circles this has been referred to as the talent and demographic mismatch.

The driving factor for companies deciding to source talent overseas is scarcity, as skills shortages in various regions and sectors across Australia are forcing employers to look overseas for the talent they need.

According to ManpowerGroup Australia & New Zealand’s managing director, Lincoln Crawley, the world’s borderless workforce – the migration of talent across and within national boundaries – is growing rapidly in size.

“Employers need to take a sophisticated approach to managing their talent supply and demand, in order to win the escalating war for talent. This means including a talent mobility strategy in their overall plan to combat skills shortages,” Crawley says.

Crawley says employers must collaborate with governments and educators in creating more dynamic sourcing opportunities, at least regionally. Given the complexity of Australia’s immigration laws, and a lingering parochialism in terms of Australia’s relations with the rest of the world, this is easier said than done.

Crawley sums up the dark cloud hanging over the mobility programs of many organisations:

“More work opportunities are surfacing across more global markets, but labour laws have traditionally been local. The hard fact is, Australia doesn’t have enough of the right skills to sustain current projects. So if we want to survive, we must consider ourselves part of a region, working closer with our Asia Pacific neighbours and the opportunities they provide for sharing workforces across borders.”

The grim reality

Just how easy (or difficult) is it for organisations to source talent from overseas? A recent discussion paper by professional services firm Deloitte, titled The New Immigration Paradigm, slammed current immigration laws as being outdated and no longer serving the needs of Australia in light of the burgeoning skills shortage.

The paper suggested that innovative solutions are needed to meet the challenges of the current economic environment, namely an overhaul of outdated immigration legislation.

Mark Wright, partner at Deloitte and national immigration leader, says that the current environment is increasing demand for a coordinated approach to workforce planning, where new government policies and employee relations need to be considered.

“Traditionally, immigration has been about ‘ticking boxes’ in order to bring offshore labour in to fill a role, but we need to stop thinking about immigration policy in isolation from other workforce solutions,” Wright says.

He adds that a more targeted approach to addressing Australia’s skills needs is required, namely by moving some of the centralised control away from Canberra and allowing states and regions greater input and control over the flow of skilled workers on a needs basis.

ManpowerGroup’s Borderless Workforce survey revealed that some Australian regions have embraced a global workforce more than others, with Western Australia leading the way. Nearly half (47%) of WA employers are using foreign talent to supplement their workforce.

Western Australia has been forced to think more strategically about labour supply – in some ways, attracting workers from overseas is easier than enticing them across from the Eastern states – but it faces an uphill battle unless changes are made to Australia’s migration policies.

To address the short term or periodic demands of companies or regions suffering the effects of skill shortages, and given Australia is in the throes of a multi-speed economy, Deloitte recommends that consideration should be given to extending the use of State Skilled Migration Plans to include temporary business entry. State governments or regional authorities should be given policy scope to develop local programs appropriate to their specific needs.

“Ensuring that the recently introduced Regional Migration Agreements [RMAs] and Enterprise Migration Agreements [EMAs] allow states greater flexibility in sourcing workers would be a first step in achieving that,” Wright says.

The RMAs, introduced as part of the last Federal Budget, are designed to identify and address the skill shortages currently facing many parts of regional Australia. These agreements will see employers, local and state governments and unions collaborating on workforce strategies that support the growth of skills and employment in the local area.

The RMAs will see a range of stakeholders provide input into developing strategies specific to their region by identifying where the shortages exist in terms of skills, industry and jobs. Local authorities will then negotiate with the Government and local employers will be able to directly sponsor workers under the agreed RMA.

While the agreements are primarily concerned with attracting foreign labour to work in regional locations experiencing skill shortages, the collaborative framework is intended to address local labour market requirements from within the Australian workforce. If properly executed, this initiative will help address the current problems by encouraging and sustaining participation in the regional workforce.

The recently introduced EMAs offer another opportunity for state-based modification. As they stand, Deloitte suggests EMAs may be too narrow in scope, as they apply only to major infrastructure projects with a minimum capital investment of $2bn and a peak workforce greater than 1,500. The current and future skill shortages extend well beyond the limited projects that would benefit from this initiative in its current form.

Instead, Deloitte suggests the EMA concept should 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 Western Australia.

More (possible) solutions

Taking it further, Deloitte has suggested that employers and government need to address the problem of workforce planning with solutions that provide for the whole of an employee’s career life cycle, including:

  • Global internship programs – this solution would allow highly sought after graduates recruited from universities and colleges around the world to enter a program through which they could develop their skills base by rotating through the global operations of the sponsoring company
  • Global skills passport – allowing skilled workers, such as engineers, entry to participating countries on the basis of their skills status alone
  • Sponsored project visa – this would accommodate the high level of project-driven labour activity in the resources, construction, IT, and energy sectors by allowing companies to more easily bring in workers for  periods of up to six months to work on specific projects   
  • “456½” visa – sitting between the current 456 and 457 visas, this scheme would allow skilled workers from depressed international markets, such as the US or Ireland, to work in Australia on a temporary basis, possibly for six months to a year

“Asia is expected to be the engine room for growth over the next decade and if Australia is to be truly competitive in that market and realise its future potential it must continue to support a diverse range of programs that provide both long and short term solutions, and which take into account the many stakeholders involved in the various stages of the employment lifecycle,” Wright says.

This is not just Australia’s problem, Wright adds, and business needs to work with the Australian government to engage with other nations around the world to achieve solutions that allow them to source the workers they need, deploy them effectively, and retain them in the long term.

“True global mobility will be one of the key factors in ensuring Australia’s workforce requirements are addressed and that will only be achieved by shifting the debate beyond our shores,” he concludes.