The federal government is being urged to restore the priority status given to a handful of tech jobs after it abruptly revoked the priority skilled migration list in a move that has surprised industry amid the ongoing skills crunch.
Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil introduced a ministerial direction last month that revokes the list that gave priority to visas in 44 occupations, including several ICT roles that remain in high demand across the economy.
ICT security specialists, analyst programmers, developer programmers, software engineers, and software and application programmers are among the now de-prioritised occupations, first reported by the Australian Financial Review.
All five professions were highlighted as some of Australia’s most in-demand occupations facing shortages in a report from the National Skills Commission last month, which the government argued “reinforces the urgent need to tackle skills shortages”.
Only certain occupations in the health and education sectors, accredited sponsor applications and regional applications will be prioritised by the Department of Home Affairs for visa processing moving forward.
The move, which comes as the government continues efforts to reduce the visa backlog, coincides with the government’s decision to further reduce permanent visas through the Global Talent program despite lifting the overall migration cap by 35,000 places this financial year.
Minister O’Neil has confirmed the changes to the priority migration skilled occupation list (PMSOL), which she said are aimed at “streamlining the [migration] system” and improving wait times for applicants.
“The previous ministerial direction prioritised so many occupations and sectors that it was adding up to 45 minutes extra processing time per application,” Ms O’Neil said in a statement to InnovationAus.com.
The changes, which remove a measure introduced by the former Coalition government to “support Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19”, are understood to allow a greater number of applications to be processed more quickly, particularly benefiting Temporary Skills Shortage visas.
The government has already reduced the backlog for the Temporary Skills Shortage program by 35 per cent, with 43,000 temporary skilled applications finalised since the start of June. More than 4,095 temporary visas have been granted to IT professionals between July and October.
But the Opposition and industry bodies are not convinced by the move while the skills shortage – which has been exacerbated by the focus on cyber in the wake of several high-profile data breaches – continues to make finding tech workers difficult.
Shadow minister for government services and the digital economy Paul Fletcher described the removal as “a very bad move” and called on the government to urgently restore the in-demand tech occupations on the PMSOL.
“Lessening the ability of our tech sector to get the highly skilled workers they need to grow their business and contribute to the growth of Australia’s digital economy is a very bad move,” he said in a statement.
“The chronic skilled worker shortage is harming our tech sector’s ability to employ more Australians over time. Labor should recognise this and urgently restore skilled tech and digital workers onto the PMSOL.”
Tech Council of Australia chief executive Kate Pounder told InnovationAus.com that the changes were “puzzling” given that the “need for these roles has only increased over time”, particularly against the “worst cyber hacking crisis’ in our nation’s history”.
Ms Pounder, who has offered to meet with the government next week to “get serious” about fixing the skills shortage, said they would be particularly devastating for startups and small to medium-sized enterprises, which don’t have the same access to accredited employee visas as big business and multi-nationals do.
“The effect of this change is that if you’re a startup or an SMEs in a metro area, those occupations you would have previously been prioritised for bringing in, you’ve lost that priority,” she said.
Australian Computer Society chief executive Chris Vein said the industry body – which is an authorised assessing authority for the skilled migration program and undertakes skill assessments – was “surprised” by the move.
“Given Australia’s ongoing chronic technology skills shortage, ACS is surprised IT visas are being de-prioritised, particularly given the important role tech plays in delivering the healthcare and education services the government is clearly looking at supporting with these changes,” he said in a statement.
Mr Vein said the changes also “highlight that skilled migration is not an easy solution for our long-standing IT skills shortfall”, with “building our domestic workforce’s capabilities, encouraging businesses to invest in advanced technology and encourage students to enter STEM careers” key.
But skilled migration is expected to remain critical to meeting the tech sector’s skills shortage over the next five years, with demand to outstrip supply provided by universities and vocational education institutions by around 160,000 workers, he said.
A spokesperson for Minister O’Neil said consultation with several sectors, including technology industry groups, took place before the ministerial determination.
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