Labor will crack down on the skilled visa scheme if it wins the upcoming election, but has moved to reassure the tech sector that this will not impact efforts to fill the growing IT talent gap.
The Opposition on Tuesday morning unveiled a tightening of the temporary skilled migration visa scheme, which was brought in by the government to replace the scrapped 457 visa.
The plan involves stricter rules around businesses having to prove they have tried to fill the job with an Australian worker, a higher wage threshold for the skilled visa and a new test to ensure that the use of a visa will also help to train local workers.
Any tightening to skilled migration inevitably leads to concerns from the tech sector that it will make it even harder for growing companies to attract talent from overseas to fill talent gaps in Australia.
But shadow digital economy minister Ed Husic has assured the tech sector that the changes won’t impact them, and that the Opposition is committed to using skilled migration to address the skills gap.
“The tech sector is experiencing crippling skills shortages and unless the government invests in skills uplift this is going to continue. We can’t clamp off access to overseas talent if we’re not investing in local talent,” Mr Husic told InnovationAus.com.
“Even if we were to fill every single technology job with a local that should not stop us from bringing in other people from around the world – someone else doing something clever or different and that would bring value, and we should bring that talent here.”
The federal government launched the Global Talent Scheme (GTS) in an effort to placate the sector following the shocked scrapping of the 457 visa, but few startups and tech firms have accessed the pilot project, and neither major party has confirmed they will continue the scheme after the trial comes to an end in June.
Before the government unveiled the GTS, Labor announced its own skilled visa program for the tech sector in early 2017. The proposed four-year SMART visa is aimed at helping companies attract “educators, innovators and researchers of a global standing”, with a pathway to permanent residency, and will likely replace the GTS if Labor wins the upcoming May election.
When questioned on ABC RN on whether the new crackdown will create “hurdles” for tech companies, shadow employment minister Brendan O’Connor also said Labor still supports bringing in overseas workers to fill gaps in the sector for certain jobs.
“I think it’s absolutely reasonable that if an employer can demonstrate that they can’t find local workers with sufficient skills then they’re given the opportunity to get that labour from overseas, but they should demonstrate they’ve looked locally first,” Mr O’Connor told ABC RN.
“We accept that if there’s a genuine shortage we need to attend to that, and we want to have the skills authority to identify genuine skills shortages … not when we have an army of unemployed Australians who have those skills but are not being connected to the labour market.”
Under the proposed changes, Labor would more strongly enforce current rules around Australian companies having to prove that they have tried to hire locally before turning to a skilled visa.
“The problem at the moment is you don’t have to sufficiently demonstrate that you’ve looked locally – the requirements are a tick and flick on a form. We need much greater levels of demonstration that you have sought local labour. That’s a reasonable expectation,” Mr O’Connor said
“We want to empower regulators to ensure there are not breaches. This government turns a blind eye and allows people to fill in forms even when they haven’t demonstrated in good faith that they’ve looked locally.”
Labor would also legislate for the creation of an Australian Jobs Test which would ensure that the skilled migration scheme supports and creates local jobs.
“What the visa arrangements have required in the past is a commitment to training. We expect employers looking to ensure their workforce acquires skills, that’s a reasonable thing. We want to make sure that if we bring people in because we believe there’s a shortage, that they have the same standards of qualifications as here,” Mr O’Connor said.
Under the policy proposal, the Temporary Skilled Migration income threshold would be increased from $53,900 to $65,000 with annual indexing.
A public register would also be launched to outline the number of visas used by individual companies.
If Labor wins the upcoming election, a skills authority will also be established to oversee the labour market testing and create a single skills shortage occupations list.
“The skills authority needs to prioritise the tech sector and the considerations of that sectors’ needs. There is an appreciation definitely, and [shadow immigration minister] Shane Neumann and I regularly speak about the problems confronting the sector, the lack of digital skills locally and the fact we can’t simply turn off the pipeline of talent here because it would basically choke the sector,” Mr Husic said.
While the increase to the salary requirement will likely not impact many tech companies, the other changes could increase the wait time for firms looking to fill talent gaps, TechVisa director Sam Bricknell said.
“If they bring in skills assessments across all occupations for temporary visas then this would slow down the process further. As many IT professionals do have higher education and strong experience, hopefully they would not be required to undergo such an assessment,” Mr Bricknell told InnovationAus.com.
“More stringent labour market testing and higher fees have also been mentioned. If this is the case, then this is where the impact might be felt by many of our clients. The advertising process is already rigorous though, so hopefully any changes are not too drastic.”