The government’s recent changes to temporary migration visas have hit the local tech sector hard, according to a recent analysis. But what effect will they have on the engineering industry?
According to an analysis of immigration and job search data by job website Indeed, the government’s shake up of the temporary skilled migration program has slashed the amount of overseas talent available to Australia’s tech startups.
Indeed found the number of skilled work visas for developers and programmers granted in the final six months of last year down by a third on the same period in 2016. They also reported the number of visas for software engineers and analyst programmers dropped by 10 per cent and 50 per cent respectively.
What changes were made?
The visa overhaul started in April last year, when the government “significantly condensed” the eligible occupation list for 457 visas, removing about 200 job categories.
According to the ABC, web developers were among the top three dropped job categories in terms of visa numbers previously granted, along with manufacturing production managers and human resource advisors.
In March this year, 457 visas were scrapped in favour of the new 482 Temporary Skills Shortage (TSS) visa, which the government said enables employers to bring in genuinely skilled overseas workers when they cannot source an appropriately skilled Australian.
A clear disadvantage
Indeed’s Chief APAC Economist Callam Pickering said a restrictive and inflexible skilled migration program and limited pathways to permanent residence put our tech sector at a clear disadvantage.
“The tech industry faces trouble on two fronts: Not only does it face skill shortages, but it frequently needs workers who don’t fall neatly into any of the existing skilled migration occupation categories,” Pickering said.
Tech sector heavyweights, including Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes and Innovation and Science Australia Chair Bill Ferris, have been vocal in their criticism of the Turnbull government’s tightening-up of temporary access to skilled overseas workers.
“The immigrants coming into top research and development positions in this country have been unquestionably and clearly job multipliers not job destroyers – there’s no doubt about that,” said Ferris at a recent Committee for Economic Development of Australia lunch.
Cannon-Brooks has warned that Atlassian might have to move its Sydney headquarters offshore in order to keep up with their demand for overseas talent.
Australia’s top universities have also raised concerns that the changes could have unintended consequences in the $21.8 billion tertiary education sector.
To address the impact on tech startups, the government has proposed a one-year trial of a ‘Global Talent Scheme’ visa to hire five positions per year with a three-year pathway to permanent residency.
Effect on engineering industry
Brent Jackson, Engineers Australia’s Executive General Manager of Strategy and Transformation, told create digital the requirement to source temporary skilled labour from the global market was a “very real problem”.
According to Jackson, the engineering fraternity would have struggled without access to temporary skilled migration, as Australia has produced around 9500 engineers per year on average over the past decade, and the industry has historically required between 13,000 to 25,000 engineering workers annually.
The proportion of overseas-born engineers in Australia’s engineering workforce is 58 per cent – second only to the number of migrants employed in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry. But Jackson said there is a clear distinction between the two sectors.
ICT expertise is in demand around the world all the time, Jackson said. While there is some overlap in professional skills (particularly in software engineering), Jackson explained labour demand in the wider engineering industry is governed by more of a boom-bust cycle.
“Not all areas of engineering experience boom and bust at the same time. Some disciplines might have a surplus while others have a shortage,” he said.
Because of these differences, Jackson said he didn’t expect the new temporary migration scheme would have a significant impact on the engineering sector as a whole. He added he was yet to see any evidence that a global talent scheme would be needed for engineers.
But Jackson also emphasised the need for employers to prove there is a local skills shortage before sourcing overseas labour to fill temporary gaps, and to ensure employees are adequately qualified (as required for permanent skilled migration).
“The general public would expect that there is some degree of check and balance and that isn’t there now,” Jackson said.