The economic sense of employee loyalty

With construction companies struggling to retain their workforce amid market fluctuations and surging demand, Roads & Infrastructure speaks to migration expert Monica Gruszka on what a win-win scenario for employees and employers could look like.

Employee turnover has long been a significant concern for employers in the construction industry. This is even more critical now as the impact of COVID-19 market fluctuations and government funding boosts has stirred up demand, creating a healthy pipeline of projects in both the construction and the infrastructure sectors.

Traditionally, construction has been among the industries where large number of workers are likely to change their employer rapidly. In its Labour Turnover Factsheet for 2020, the Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) ranked construction as the fifth industry with high employee turnover rate, noting that 10.1 per cent of workforce in the industry had changed employer at least once in the year to February 2020.

The arrival of COVID-19 has further complicated things, with companies dealing on one hand with an influx of projects, and on the other hand, border restrictions impacting skilled workers’ abilities to re-locate and fill the gaps.

A surge in housing demand has seen the industry face an unprecedented skill shortage. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ housing finance data in July showed that the number of new mortgages taken out for construction of dwellings in May 2021 was 89 per cent higher than it was in May last year.

Similar situations prevail in the infrastructure sector. Peak industry bodies Roads Australia and the Australasian Railway Association called on the Federal Government in June to update the Priority Skilled Occupations List to include specialist skills critical to the delivery of major road and rail construction projects. This led to the decision by the Federal Government to expand the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL) to include occupations such as electrical engineer, structural engineer, geotechnical engineer and transport engineer.

With demand for skilled workforce showing no signs of receding and with companies continually looking to lower their labour turnover costs, migration expert Monica Gruszka believes employers should seriously consider the benefits of skilled visa programs for their businesses.

As Principal Director of Sydney-based Gruszka & Associates, Gruszka has helped many construction companies find loyal employees through the programs and says she has seen first-hand the benefits for both employers and employees.

“If you look at the history of why the temporary skill shortage visa program was first introduced, it was specifically designed to address labour shortages where businesses most struggle to find locally available workforce. Small businesses are the backbone of the Australian economy, and the skilled visa program was introduced to ensure that businesses can continue to function,” says Gruszka.

“If an employee knows that they could become permanent residents of Australia and benefit from incentives such as Medicare, superannuation, sick leave and annual leave, that increases the chance of businesses retaining the workforce they have trained and supported. From the employee’s perspective, the permanent residency and the chance to become a citizen of Australia is the dangling carrot. It’s a situation where everyone wins.”

Different visa options

The subclass 482 temporary skill shortage visa enables employers to address labour shortages in their industry by bringing in skilled workers for a period of up to four years where they can’t source an appropriately skilled Australian worker.

The permanent employer nomination scheme visa, or subclass 186, on the other hand, allows sponsored workers to stay and work in Australia permanently.

Gruszka says it’s up to the employers to choose which visa type is best suited to their requirements.

“If the individual is more skilled, there is the possibility of direct permanent entry via the employment nominated pathway. But if the company just wants temporary workers for any reason, like if they want to trial someone before offering them permanent residency rights, then we can go down the temporary skilled visa pathway. The costs are actually quite similar for both options.”

Another class of visa that Gruszka believes is often overlooked is the subclass 407 Training Visa.

“This is a fantastic visa and a huge opportunity for companies that want to sponsor an apprentice, but the individual does not have the formal qualifications for a temporary skilled visa,” she explains.

“I have mechanics, carpenters, joiners, brick layers, cabinet makers, who have come from overseas and are here on a student visa. They might have brought with them certain skills or gained the skills through working part-time during their studies, but they don’t meet the qualification requirements for a skilled visa yet.

“The 407 Training Visa allows companies to provide a work-based training program and retain their apprentices for two extra years while they train and get qualified. The companies are not obliged to provide the individual with the market salary rate, because they are apprentices, but they get to build excellent loyalty and the assurance that their workforce will stay with them beyond the training period.”

A unique type of service

In a way, what Gruszka & Associates offers is unique in the construction industry. Where most migration agents offer advice solely on issues related to visa and residency, Gruszka says her personal connections with the construction sector have turned her into a jack of all trades, quite literally.

“When I process any visa application, I often look at their resumes and then I call the companies and say here’s a resume, what do you think? And vice versa, the companies might ask me, do you know anyone? So, I ask for permission from both parties to exchange their information and then it’s up to them to work it out,” she explains.

As the daughter of a migrant, Gruszka is a passionate advocate for immigrants. Having received her qualifications as a migration agent from the Office of the Migration Agents Registration Authority in 2017, she is currently undertaking a law degree to become a barrister. She also actively participates in providing CPD training for other migration agents.

“The law is constantly changing,” she says, emphasising why companies should consider the services of a professional firms in the area.

“For example, as of last year, companies are required to conduct some additional labour market testing. You need to consult experts because the criteria for advertising the job are exceptionally high. The job must be advertised for a minimum of 28 days on three different paid platforms. Of these, one must be on the government website JobActive, and that’s where it becomes very technical because the job requirements need to be very clearly specified.

“Applications for subclass 482 visa are among the most scrutinised applications. That’s because there is a high risk that the advertisements might not be genuine and the Australian government, of course, does not want to deprive local workforce of job opportunities. As a one-stop-shop agency, we take care of everything, from drafting employment contracts to assisting with job descriptions,” she says.

And these days, Gruszka says her team remains as busy as ever, despite the construction sector in New South Wales going through disruptions as a result of COVID-19.

“Nothing has stopped. The companies are still looking for workforce. In fact, our team has been very busy this month. The anticipation is that the lockdown’s impact will not be long-term, and the projects’ pipelines will keep growing. As someone close to the construction sector, I don’t see any sign of things slowing down.”

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