Conflicting reports over role of migrants in the skilled worker pipeline

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A research project which is the first of its kind has backed the usage of 457 Visas and temporary overseas workers in the national resource industry – contrary to union noisemakers, the majority of roles go to local workers, and gaps are filled by skilled migrants.

The study from Edith Cowan University (ECU) confirms the experience of many employers and HR professionals: that skilled and experienced Aussie workers are reluctant to relocate from Australia’s east coast to remote western locations. In turn, migrant workers play a small but important role in ensuring resource projects are built on time and to budget, leading to increased longer-term employment opportunities for Australians and greater investment security.

Despite the findings of the ECU study, a separate research report compiled by Monash University’s Centre for Urban and Population Research (CPUR), argues that Australia’s immigration intake is too high. It found that the Government’s immigration policy is out of sync with the current economic climate, causing many Australians to compete with migrants in the struggle to find work.

Lead researcher and head of the CPUR, Dr Bob Birrell, said the report shows that under the current employment conditions, several of the major visa subclasses need to be culled. “Australia has been in the grip of a boom mentality over the last decade,” Dr Birrell said. "In such booms, government and business enterprises seem to lose the capacity to put claims of economic growth to a reality test – claims such as those from the Australian Workforce and Productivity Agency, which say demand for workers will increase."

Immigration policy settings have been adjusted to accommodate this boom mentality, and the permanent migration program for 2012-13 set at a record high figure of 210,000. The government’s 457 temporary-entry visa program is also running at record high levels.

“The immigration program is set on full throttle, whereas the net growth of the employed workforce in Australia has slowed to a crawl,” Dr Birrell said. “The net growth in the employed workforce in Australia was just 58,000 between the 2011 and 2012 August quarters. Yet, in the past year, at least 100,000 migrants who arrived found employment in Australia.”

The report shows that due to the current immigration policies, domestic job aspirants are being crowded out, particularly young people seeking to enter the workforce. Australian-born youth unemployment has increased and, as of August 2012, there were 666,830 unemployment benefit recipients, up from 626,969 in August 2012.

“The most serious implication of migration for domestic workers is the huge presence of migrants on temporary visas in metropolitan lower-skilled labour markets,” Dr Birrell said. “Though allegedly here for various educational, holiday and cultural exchange purposes, large numbers are primarily in Australia to work.”

According to the national resource industry employer group, the AMMA, government figures show that of the 45,000 new jobs in Australian mining created in 2012, 98.7% were filled by Australian workers. “However [the ECU] study demonstrates that temporary migration schemes are still very important to Australia’s overall skills strategy,” Minna Knight from the AMMA said.

“Temporary skilled migration is particularly important in those remote areas of Western Australia [and this study] identified [that it] is very difficult to attract the total number of skilled workers necessary. The study shows many cases where skilled workers based in the eastern states were reluctant to move to the west due to a lack of regional infrastructure and general lifestyle preferences,” Knight said.

The report also found that the initial cost in sourcing and recruiting temporary skilled migrants can reach $65,000 per worker, highlighting that employers only go down this path as a last resort to supplement their skilled domestic workforce where significant skills or experience gaps emerge.

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