Opening the panel on “a migration system for Australia’s future”, Home Affairs minister Clare O’Neil announced a review of the migration system would be launched within weeks.
The review will be led by “three eminent Australians, supported by a team of brilliant thinkers, to consider how we can rebuild our immigration program in Australia’s national interest”, Minister O’Neil said.
A Jobs and Skills Summit panel was moderated by Australian National University (ANU) vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt, and featured Ms O’Neil, Atlassian chief executive Scott Farquhar, property management platform provider :Different’s co-founder Mina Radhakrishnan, and Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Daniel Walton.
Setting the tone for the panel, Ms O’Neil emphasised the need for the skilled workers to support the energy transition, enhance the uptake of technology across the economy to boost productivity, “sovereign capabilities in cyber” and the “technology that will support our submarine defence program”.
“We are in a global war for talent for the first time in our history. Those best and brightest minds who are on the move around the world, they are looking to live in countries like Canada, like Germany, like the UK, and those countries are rolling out the red carpet,” Minister O’Neil said.
Professor Schmidt questioned Ms O’Neil on how immigration might support sovereign capability, given a number of related jobs require applicants to be Australian citizens.
She said that sovereign capability “hasn’t been thought about as part of our migration program before, and what I want us to really think about as a group is, what challenges lie in our future and how we can use the immigration system to meet those challenges”.
“We cannot grow the skills that we need, for example, in cyber. We can at that entry level… but one of these [skills] gaps is for people who have got 15 to 18 years of experience in tech.”
At the beginning of the panel discussion, Professor Schmidt shared his own migration story, from 1994. He compared this to the inconvenience facing skilled migrants today.
“As vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, I need to recruit the best and brightest from around the world. The low friction environment I experienced is sadly no longer experienced by most of our incoming staff,” he said.
For example, Professor Schmidt noted that it recently took 21 months for the visa of a potential staff member from India to be processed, after they had been offered a three year job.
“Needless to say, we lost most of those staff places overseas. The people we lost are skilled in areas of national importance, in quantum physics, cyber and security studies, in biomedical, computer science, just to name a few,” he said.
“[Visa processing time] makes a huge difference if you want to attract top talent. These people have global options.”
Professor Schmidt also called for the creation of a bipartisan body that would be able to make decisions about visa settings over the long-term, rather than in an ad-hoc manner.
Atlassian chief executive Scott Farquhar said Australian technology companies need a mindset shift to acknowledge they are competing on the global stage for highly skilled jobs.
“If you have a skills shortage of nurses, that’s one thing. If I have a skill shortage of technology people, those jobs go overseas. Those careers, those industries, those export dollars, just might migrate to somewhere else in the world,” Mr Farquhar said.
“Over the next 12 months, we can hire about 1032 into R&D jobs. We hope to hire them all around Australia because we allow them to work anywhere, so that’s regional areas as well as capital cities. But, again, if we can’t find those jobs here they will go overseas to other locations.
“When we think about our business system it should reflect that. We should be falling over ourselves to bring the best and brightest from overseas to come build our export markets here.”
As :Different is a small to medium enterprise, Ms Radhakrishnan said she does not have the luxury of moving her company’s jobs overseas if they can’t be filled. Unlike Atlassian, which can afford to find staff overseas, Ms Radhakrishnan said “when I can’t find a software engineer my business is going to fail, because I need to bring that person on board.
She added that skilled migration also leads to job creation. Experienced managers play an important part in upskilling Australian staff, Ms Radhakrishnan said.
“The need for training, teaching and support [doesn’t go] away when we leave school and go into a professional career. Who provides that? That’s managers. There’s a very common saying, ‘people don’t need jobs they need managers’. That is so true because it’s the support and the people around you who enable you to get to the next level.”
Mr Walton, who is the vice-president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, encouraged the government to remember that the purpose of migration is to create “enormous value for our country” by filling roles that can’t otherwise be filled by Australians.
He also urged government not to neglect the training of local talent in favour of less expensive temporary migration.
“What we find at the moment is more and more temporary migration used as a way to paper over the gaps of actually training and developing locals to be able to undertake those roles,” Mr Walton said.
“We’ve got this perverse incentive where in some skills and occupations it’s cheaper and easier to bring over a worker on a temporary basis than to train and develop a worker. We have to go back to our origins, we have to go back to identify the purpose of our immigration system.”
He also urged the government to increase the number of public servants to help clear the visa backlog. This was also backed by Professor Schmidt.
Mr Farquhar noted that temporary migration visas are not going to be able to attract high-skilled PhD holders, who often have families, if there is no path to permanency.
Speaking from the floor were Nationals Leader David Littleproud and independent Zali Steggall.
Although Mr Littleproud welcomed the federal government’s Pacific Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme, he said the government ought to be more pragmatic about the needs of the agriculture sector and regional Australia more broadly.
Mr Littleproud also expressed his willingness to be a constructive voice in the discussion about jobs and skills, emphasising the importance of providing migrants a pathway to settling in Australia permanently.
“From what I’ve heard today… we’re on the same national unity ticket on the pathway to permanent residency,” he said
I want to see the next generation of migrants come to regional Australia not pass through. We’ve had enough of people just coming, picking crops, or being part of the processing sector and just coming and going. We want them to live in regional Australia.”
Ms Steggall reiterated that skills need to be developed locally if Australia is to become a green energy and manufacturing powerhouse. She noted that Australia has some of the lowest research and development investment, ranks 25th on the global innovation index, and suffers from a brain drain.
“[This]doesn’t make us an attractive place for talent worldwide,” Ms Steggall said.
“When we talk about this, yes there’s the high paid jobs, there’s the lower paid jobs, but there’s also that question of what are the skills and what are we going to try and attract.
“Are we doing everything we can locally before we look to the rest of the world? How we treat people when they come here is incredibly important. We have too many engineers that are Uber drivers at the moment and yet we have skill shortages.”
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