Allegra Spender, The Financial Review -
The Jobs Summit must turn talk into swift action to alleviate the pressing skills and staff shortages facing businesses
One of the great strengths that carried independents like me into the new parliament was a commitment to listen more closely to our electorates.
In Wentworth, migration is a priority. For the businesses I speak to, the most pressing issue is skills and staff shortages. For individuals, it’s visa delays. Unfortunately, these challenges are not unique to us.
Australia has an acute worker shortage and critical skills deficit. From tech companies to coffee shops, businesses are being crippled, and essential services are at risk.
Last month’s ABS data shows there are more than 480,000 unfilled jobs in Australia. With unemployment at a 48-year low, and COVID-19 absences continuing to cripple businesses, an immediate domestic solution is unlikely.
It’s not just businesses that are suffering. The blowout in visa processing times has left many who fled the Taliban left in hiding in Pakistan. In some cases, people in desperate need still haven’t heard back from the Australian Department of Home Affairs, almost a year after they lodged their application.
So, the new government has a lot of work to do. Prioritising the backlog of permanent skilled visas is welcome, as is the indication that surge capacity will be deployed to reduce waiting times. But the system needs serious reform.
Such reform must recognise that different parts of our labour market needs different approaches. For higher wage and higher skilled jobs, we can give more flexibility to business because the risks of exploitation and pressure on Australian wages is limited.
We also have thousands of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia who have either no or limited working rights.
The Commonwealth must lead from the front in addressing this crisis.
I commend Labor’s consultative approach to policymaking and the opportunity to bring together business, unions and the community at the upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit. But the summit needs to turn discussions swiftly into action if we are going to be able to help those businesses that need it most.
Three main elements are key.
First, we need to boost the intake of high-skilled and high-earning individuals to Australia. That will mean raising the permanent migration intake to above 200,000 for the next two years. But reform goes far beyond a single number.
We also need systemic change so that our migration program supports a future-focused economy. That means providing more flexibility for businesses to bring in the people they need; for example, by introducing a simple salary threshold for skilled visa eligibility.
It means providing a permanent residence pathway for all those on Temporary Skills Shortage and Temporary Graduate visas.
It means raising the share of skilled migrant visas that are employer-sponsored.
And it means ensuring all parts of the visa system are delivering for the economy. If they’re not, we should change them.
Second, we need to take immediate action to ameliorate short-term labour shortages.
Businesses are crying out for more staff, but it’s not clear if the government will do enough.
We need to deliver a campaign and a policy-set that promotes Australia as the destination of choice for temporary migrants.
We can keep talented people here by implementing a minimum two-year term for all Temporary Graduate visas, with eligibility for renewal.
We can expand eligibility for repeat working holiday visas for those already contributing to our economy. We can extend and broaden the relaxation of work restrictions on international students. And revert to four-year terms for all Temporary Skills Shortage visas.
We also have thousands of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia who have either no or limited working rights, or even a pathway to permanency.
Labor committed in the election to abolishing these visas. Swift action on this would address a blight on Australia’s human rights record and supports the critical needs of business now.
And these changes do not need to come at the expense of Australian workers or their skills.
Investment in the skills of our workforce is critical, but it is not a quick fix. If we have the settings right, migrants can drive skill development in critical sectors and roles, such as in technology.
Third, we need to make it much easier to navigate the system. Since the election, I have had numerous requests from community members waiting to hear back on their visa applications – some are refugees, some work in finance.
Promised surge capacity to clear the backlog must be deployed now, and the government should look critically at how it can streamline the system.
That could mean reducing labour market testing and related requirements for workers earning above a certain salary threshold, and simplifying the bureaucratic processes that businesses have to go through, particularly when it comes to intra-company transfers.
While migration is only part of the answer, it’s a policy lever we can pull now.
It will need to be supplemented by investment in education and training, and by unlocking the economic opportunity of increased female workforce participation.
The new government has an opportunity to be ambitious, to resolve this crisis, and to back Australian businesses.
I look forward to working with it to do so.