Looking for skills outside the borders

With the infrastructure sector gripping for a significant skills shortage over the next decade, migration specialist Monica Gruszka says it’s never been more critical for companies to attract the right talent. Tara Hamid reports.

Within the realm of public infrastructure projects, it’s no longer a matter for debate that the industry is facing a looming shortage of skills to help deliver the multi-billion-dollar pipeline of shovel-ready projects in the next five to ten years.

If there was any suspicion that the shortage might be short-lived and exaggerated, Infrastructure Australia’s Market Capacity report in October presented clear evidence that the sector will, at least for the short to medium term, be critically under-staffed.

In its first analysis of Australia’s ability to deliver billions of dollars of transport, energy and other building projects like hospitals, the Commonwealth-funded infrastructure agency found that demand for workers is expected to be some 48 per cent higher than supply over the next three years and that one-third of jobs advertised could remain unfilled.

Of the 50 occupations involved in delivering infrastructure, 34 are potentially in shortage, with Australia’s state and national border closures during COVID-19 compounding the difficulty of moving people around, according to Infrastructure Australia’s 165-page report.

What this means for private companies hoping to benefit from the Government’s infrastructure investment, as well for the construction companies looking to gain from the current housing boom, is that they would have to compete with recruiters within the public sector to win over existing and migrated workforce.

To this end, migration expert Monica Gruszka has some suggestions for those companies that are looking for talent outside of their tried-and-tested pathways.

Choosing the right pathway

As a Sydney-based Registered Migration Agent and having provided consultancy to multiple companies within the construction industry, Gruszka thinks companies that have already identified suitable talent outside the borders should not spare any time in kicking off the pre-qualification process.

“With international borders opening up, it’s going to be a relief for the industry, and we are going to have a boom early next year,” she says. “So, if you have people that you have been looking for, you need to get ready for the sponsorship process. Sometimes just obtaining the eligibility approval can put you months ahead.”

While some companies identify people with unique skillsets and experiences outside the borders, Gruszka admits that it’s more likely for companies to find their next employee from migrants already living in Australia or those moving here on visas that are not specifically work-related.

“The most common process we experience is that the person first comes to Australia on a student or working holiday visa and they work part-time with a local company. This in turn, gives companies a chance to trial the person and then decide whether they want to sponsor them and offer them a chance to gain legal working rights in the long term,” she says.

Here, the companies might have a number of options, she explains.

“Depending on the level of experience and the types of skills the person has, they might qualify for a permanent skilled visa or a temporary skilled visa. Where both options are available, we present both to the company and it’s up to the employer to decide the pathway that aligns best with their requirements,” she says.

Speaking to the experts

Irrespective of the pathway selected, Gruszka asserts that consulting with an expert migration agency can bring multiple advantages. This is particularly important given the higher priority placed by the Federal Government to recruit locally available skills.

“Irrespective of the applicant’s qualifications, what the assessing officers often consider is whether or not it is in Australia’s best interest to offer an employment opportunity to a visa applicant. This is where our job, as migration agents, is crucial in determining and proving, beyond any doubt, that the recruitment and visa sponsorship is justified,” she says.

An example of this, she recalls, took place during the recent border restrictions when the Federal Government had restricted issue of skilled migration visas to a select list of critical skills.

“Our client, an Australian company, had won a major government grant to conduct important research within a set timeline. To do that, they required an experienced hydrogeologist. They had already identified the right person, who lived in South Africa, but even though the person’s skillset matched their requirement, he still did not qualify under the government’s mandate of only allowing critical workers,” she says.

“Working with this client, we were able to convince the authorities that this individual’s skillset was complementary to the work the researchers were doing and that unless he was granted an exemption, the Australian company would lose their grant. As is sometimes the case, the assessing body cannot connect the dots where certain skills overlap and complement each other. It’s our job to build the case and make that connection.”

Another reason she says it’s important to talk to an expert is to make sure all avenues for migration have been considered.

“Many people don’t know that apart from the occupation priority list published by the Commonwealth Government, states and territories also have their own list of priorities. So, if your occupation is not on the federally issued skilled occupation list, you might still qualify for a regional- or state-sponsored visa,” she explains.

Since 2017, the visa options available to eligible skilled migrants have been sub-categorised into two categories: the Short-term Skilled Occupation List (STSOL) and the Medium and Long-term Strategic Skills List (MLTSSL). While applicants with occupations on the MLTSSL can qualify for a permanent residency visa, those with jobs on the STSOL can only qualify for four-year visas, with the option to extend it for another four years.

With the industry currently struggling to fill jobs that sit on the short-term skilled occupation list, Gruszka is hoping the government will re-consider this format.

“This decision was taken on the basis of the assumption that skilled migration had a link to unemployment rate in Australia. But in the years since the policy has been introduced, initiatives to upskill the Australian workforce have failed to meet the immediate vacancy that exists in the sector. On the other hand, by offering only temporary visa options to people that have critical skills, like carpenters and electricians and cleaners and plumbers, we have de-incentivised it for both the employer and the migrant,” she observes.

“Why would anyone uproot themselves from their country, move here for just four to eight years, and then go back to their country?” she asks.

In fact, the recommendation was recently put forward by the Parliament of Australia’s Joint Standing Committee on Migration earlier this year that the Government should consolidate the MLTSSL and STSOL into one Skilled Occupation List (SOL).

The committee also recommended that when the pandemic is concluded, the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL) should be replaced by an Acute and Persistent Skills Shortage List (APSSL), with the aim that this would streamline the process for skilled migrants seeking to fill those roles on the Acute and Persistent Skills Shortage List.

For Gruszka and her clients, that would be welcome news.

“From my conversations with clients, I know how much the industry is struggling to fill positions that do not necessarily require high levels of academic education. We need labourers and tradespeople and machinery operators, and with borders opening up, we should cut the political red tapes that prevent these people from getting here.”

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