Rolf White is a happy man. Six months ago, the 24-year-old Englishman swapped his job as a mining production engineer in Ireland’s struggling economy for a similar role in Western Australia, more than doubling his salary. White is employed by nickel producer Western Areas after arriving on a temporary recognised graduate visa (476).
He lives with three workmates in Perth’s trendy North Fremantle, flying in and out of a site 400km east of the city. “It’s much better conditions here. I work eight days on and six days off,” says White, whose visa allows recent graduates of recognised overseas universities to do 18 months’ work experience in high-demand occupations as well as apply for permanent residency.
A report by recruiter Hays earlier this year revealed that 70 per cent of organisations are experiencing skills shortages with the biggest gap in the public sector. In June, Hays reported that shortages had intensified in operations, technical, accounting and finance areas at the junior to mid-management level.
In the health industry — the country’s biggest employer — the situation is said to be even more critical, with Australia needing an extra 2700 doctors and 110,000 nurses to meet needs by 2025, according to Health Workforce Australia. Part-time employment and flexible working hours will go some way to easing the problem but employing overseas skills is another strategy.
“According to our survey, 59 per cent of employers said they would consider employing or sponsoring a qualified overseas candidate in skill-short areas,” says Nick Deligiannis, Hays’ managing director in Australia.
Filling the void
Sentiments were stirred up by the introduction of the first Enterprise Migration Agreement in May. The EMA allows approved resources giants the right to employ large numbers of foreign workers on temporary 457 visas in jobs not usually permitted by the migration program.
To qualify for an EMA, projects need to be worth $2 billion-plus and require more than 1500 workers. Employers must also have shown that they advertised their vacancies on the new government-run Jobs Board, will offer foreigners comparable salaries and conditions to Australian workers and invest in training local people.
Dave Noonan, national secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, is sceptical about the extent of the skills shortage. He is also concerned about how the new EMAs will be monitored, particularly whether companies have made a genuine effort to recruit Australians first.
“With more than $170 billion of work in the pipeline over the next 10 years, it is likely that there will be some key areas of skills shortage, but I don’t accept there is a skills shortage throughout the trades,” says Noonan. He claims the union has notified DIAC about companies flouting visa requirements and the response was disappointing.
“We have informed them of companies bringing in scaffolders in breach of the 457 visa and they have gone through some pantomime investigation. There needs to be a much better system than that to ensure some confidence in their role as a regulator,” he says.
Focus on training
A report by Deloitte Access Economics on behalf of the Queensland Resources Council details 66 projects in the state with a combined capital expenditure of more than $142 billion up to 2020. “The training sector was under pressure before the boom. Now we really do need to look at different ways to do this — whether it’s more online training or simulated training,” says Atkins. “And if we don’t have these immigration agreements (EMAs), construction phases of projects won’t happen and later on we will lose a generation of employment,” he says.
Think outside the box
Meanwhile, newcomers to Australia are reaping the rewards of the minerals boom — and not just on a financial level. Many companies are offering added extras such as free language classes for skilled migrants and their partners and have refined their reception and support procedures to assist in the cultural transition.
Mary-Jane Heaney, Downer EDI Mining’s senior mobilisation adviser, says the process is about much more than meeting migrants at airports and settling them into their job and home. It is an ongoing commitment. “They are assisted with their tax file numbers, bank accounts, mobile phones and medical cover. We try to make sure they have time to get over their jetlag before starting work. Then there’s the standard introductions and training at work. And we’re also talking about using host families to help them socialise immediately. We want them to integrate as quickly as possible,” says Heaney.