The national focus on skills shortages is welcome, but we can’t afford to wait

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Australia is experiencing the second most severe labour shortage in the developed world, behind only Canada.

This acute and ongoing skills crisis must urgently be addressed, and while the government has a plan, there is a clear role for the private sector to play as well.

The skills gap is plain to see for any Australian business looking to hire, and it’s especially stunting the growth of the burgeoning local tech sector.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were nearly half a million job vacancies across Australia in May, a figure that rose by 14% over the previous quarter. The information media and telecommunications services sector had the second highest growth in vacancies at 18%, after retail trade at 38%.

The new Labor government has been making some very welcome statements about its plans to address this issue, giving it the prominence that it deserves.

The rhetoric is a good start — government action is needed to expand and accelerate skilled migration, and federal levers need to be pulled to ensure better education and training pathways.

But the private sector cannot just sit back and wait for these bureaucratic wheels to be set in motion. There are tangible things that businesses can do today to help address the skilled talent shortage in Australia.

The private sector must be vocal in its support for better permanent residency pathways that enable businesses to attract and retain smart, talented people to our shores and grow our local industries. In anticipation of improved skilled migration systems, businesses should be hiring abroad to fill open positions now, with a view to relocating overseas employees to Australia when they can.  

Speaking at the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia (FECCA) Conference recently, Immigration Minister Andrew Giles reinforced the government’s focus on fast-tracking visa applications to address the ever-growing backlog. There are a huge number of people sitting on bridging visas and waiting to work, and countless engineers have waited several years to be able to come to Australia to work on 476 visas.

Fast-tracking immigration and work permits is an obvious way to boost the number of candidates available to businesses. A big factor in attracting people to Australia on working visas is the possibility of settling here permanently. We want the best and brightest making our sunburnt country their chosen home. 

However, protracted waiting periods, changes to permanent residency rules and visa pathways, and the ability for most employees to work from anywhere, have also lessened the desire for many overseas workers to make the move to Australia.

Further, more skilled temporary entrants left Australia in April 2022 than arrived. This suggests that in addition to a drop in interest, Australian employers may not be making the most of the opportunity to recruit workers from overseas.

Industry Minister Ed Husic has signalled his goal of enticing technology and science specialists back to Australia to stem the brain drain. There are an estimated 20,000 Australians working on the US west coast alone. The private sector must also demonstrate the opportunities waiting for them back home.

During the election campaign, Labor backed the Tech Council of Australia’s goal of having 1.2 million tech jobs by 2030, and has announced a series of initiatives to get there, including free TAFE places, extra university courses and government support for growing startups. 

Skills Minister Brendan O’Connor is also set to “reset” discussions over the $12 billion national skills deal with the state and territory governments, listing it as his number one priority. 

These are all positive and welcome developments, and the Labor government should be commended for placing the skills gap front and centre in national discussions and signalling efforts to address it.

However, these programs all take time to deliver — and we simply can’t afford to wait. 

Companies are increasingly opting to hire people overseas as the best short-term solution to the skills crisis. The Australian Information Industry Association’s (AIIA) 2022 annual member survey found that more than a third of companies would hire an even mix of workers from Australia and overseas.

As employers embrace a people-centric and flexible approach to employee management that adapts to the demands of top talent, there is greater scope to hire flexibly and globally. 

It’s an attractive option because it’s not only a stopgap measure that can be executed quickly, it can also bring long-term benefits. Companies that hire overseas can create their own pipeline of proven employees for emigration to Australia as the government begins to unlock this pathway. Hiring globally also enables Australian companies to access the world’s top talent and be more competitive as a result. 

Lastly, Australian companies could also be more open to hiring graduates and people with limited experience, both locally and abroad. Yes, it takes time and money to mentor and train them, but it pays off in the longer-term by fostering greater employee satisfaction, improved retention, and a better team culture overall.

We finally have the proper level of discussion and importance around the skills crisis that Australia is facing, and the new government is sending all the right messages to industry.

Now companies need to make it clear to the government that they are willing and able to grow their businesses and contribute more to the Australian economy, both by attracting talent from overseas and by ensuring employees have the pathways they need to grow their careers. 

It’s time for action to address this — a joint effort between the private and public sectors.

This action will not only improve the skills pipeline, it will also set up Australian industry for success on the world’s stage.

Let’s capitalise on the goodwill from the government and the national attention on this issue by showing businesses are ready and able to play their part. 

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