A whole-of-government approach to address skills and labour shortages was one of the key recommendations in the final report released this week from the Joint Standing Committee on Migration following its inquiry into Australia’s skilled migration program.
Committee chair Julian Leeser said more than 500,000 temporary working visa migrants had left Australia since the COVID pandemic began, and the lack of skilled migrants, coupled with record low unemployment, has led to major skill shortages in many sectors of the Australian economy.
With job ads in Australia up 38 percent this year, and national unemployment currently at 4.9pc, the Standing Committee’s report suggests skilled migration is one of the policy levers available to governments to address workforce shortages in the economy.
“It is not the only lever – others include vocational and higher education and employment services programs. But not all the levers can produce the same results in a timely way. In terms of filling immediate skills shortages, skilled migration can produce timely results,” the report suggested.
While not explicitly a part of the terms of reference of this inquiry, understanding the nature and extent of workforce shortages in Australia and the policy responses to them quickly emerged as a key issue underpinning the investigation.
The Committee said it had consistently heard that Australian employers would choose Australians over skilled migrants (should they be available), and that choosing a skilled migrant to fill a role often helped create other Australian jobs.
In gathering evidence for the final report, the committee considered skilled migration in the context of the other levers available to government.
“It became apparent that greater coordination of effort across the Commonwealth and across jurisdictions is needed to identify labour shortages and formulate the appropriate policy response to those shortages,” the final report said.
Agriculture is one of the sectors hit hardest by labour shortages over the past two years, with red meat processing a prime example.
Processors are struggling to find enough labour to even cover the current extremely low rates of beef and lamb kill across Australia, caused by herd and flock reduction after two years of continental-scale drought. MLA’s latest forecast suggests the 2021 yearly beef kill will reach 35-year lows, at around 6.4 million head.
There is a growing sense of unease among Australian processors that once slaughter numbers start to rise again, labour access will be the critical limiting factor in processors’ ability to cope with larger numbers. One large Australian processing company currently has 700 jobs available across its Australian processing operations. More on this topic in a separate story to come.
The Standing Committee’s report made a series of recommendations addressing a range of issues including a whole-of-government approach to address skills shortages, providing clearer pathways to permanent residency, and enabling the best and brightest international students to come and stay in Australia to help us fill persistent skills shortages.
The report also recommends a number of measures aimed at cleaning up and streamlining the skilled migration system, including consolidating skills lists, replacing ANZSCO, providing more concessions for regional visas, improving customer service from Home Affairs and streamlining Labour Market Testing and the Skilling Australia Fund.
Committee chair Julian Mr Leeser the Government had already implemented recommendations the committee made in its earlier interim report, in relation to skills shortages in the economy and their impact on the viability of businesses and their ability to create more jobs for Australians.
Within agriculture, migration is considered an important component of the current and future workforce, the report noted.
The National Farmers Federation in its submission noted that the migrant worker intake should reflect Australia’s immediate and future skilled labour needs.
“And while it should complement domestic training arrangements — which must deliver the backbone of Australia’s skilled labour — it must also be accessible and flexible enough to enable farms to fill actual and projected gaps in labour market activity,” NFF said.
Consideration of the appropriate migration settings within this context posed a challenge to policy makers and industry, NFF suggested, particularly in ensuring that the role of migration does not compromise ‘efforts to maintain and grow the domestic workforce’.
The National Agricultural Workforce Strategy (NAWS) examined the importance of workforce data in policy which effectively supported current and future workforce requirements in the agriculture industry. It found that accurate data was critical to many aspects of training and planning to meet future needs.
Skills and training providers needed to understand both numbers of jobs and skills required to ensure the right training was available. Information on how labour requirements are changing in different communities would enable better planning to support those workers, for example through ensuring sufficient availability of housing and services such as education and health.
At a national scale, understanding change in workforces enabled forward planning to meet emerging labour demands, both in terms of number of jobs required and in terms of the types of skills required.
The National Agricultural Workforce Strategy also found that data currently collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, and various rural research and development corporations was typically standalone, and “could not be readily integrated with each other to form a more comprehensive picture.”
According to the NAWS, the various data-sets only produced a limited insight into one aspect of the workforce, and were not collected consistently over time, reducing the ability to understand trends in the agricultural workforce.
As a result, the available data on the agricultural workforce currently does not provide a comprehensive picture of the current status or future requirements of the Australian agricultural workforce, the report said.
Among key recommendations in the report:
That the Federal Government should develop a dynamic national workforce plan. The plan would co-ordinate the efforts of State and Federal Governments to ensure Australia’s persistent skills shortages and future workforce needs are addressed through Australia’s higher education and vocational education systems, employment services and the skilled migration program. This plan should be regularly updated. In order to develop the plan:
- A cross-portfolio, cross-jurisdictional interagency committee (IAC) should be established, meet regularly, and comprise decision-makers from departments and agencies, led by the NSC.
- The NSC and relevant data collection bodies should also develop a data aggregation system that identifies skills shortages at a regional level by occupation.
The National Skills Commission should develop a new occupation and/or skills identification system for the skilled migration program, in consultation with industry, to replace ANZSCO. The new system should be more flexible to adapt to emerging labour market needs
The Federal Government should develop accepted definitions of ‘acute’ skills shortages and ‘persistent’ skills shortages, taking into account:
- Recruitment difficulty
- Length of time the shortage has existed
- Number of job vacancies and the geographic spread of vacancies
- Criticality of the occupation if left unfilled
- Criticality of the occupation to temporary circumstances (e.g. bushfires, floods or pandemics).
The Department of Home Affairs should change the visa conditions for the short-term stream of the Temporary Skills Shortage visa (subclass 482) to provide a pathway to permanent residency for temporary migrants.
All employer-nominated visas should provide the option of a pathway to permanency. The length of time to permanency and the conditions involved may vary from visa to visa with, for instance, applicants in lower skilled occupations taking longer to reach permanency than more highly skilled visa holders.
Employers should be exempt from paying the Skilling Australia Fund levy twice for the same applicant, or for a subsequent visa, where the employer has already paid the Skilling Australia Fund levy for that employee.