Tim Colebatch, The Age (Melbourne), February 18, 2008
IMMIGRATION Minister Chris Evans has devised a package of measures to ease labour shortages by attracting more skilled workers to Australia, either permanently or on working holidays.
Three days after figures showed unemployment had fallen to a 33-year low of 4.1%, Senator Evans said the Government would immediately lift the quota for skilled migrants this financial year by 6000, most of whom would be sponsored by employers.
It will also ease the rules for backpackers visiting Australia on working holidays, allowing them an extra year on their visas if they spend three months in construction jobs in regional Australia.
Senator Evans said officials were also negotiating to expand the reciprocal working holiday program to more countries, and a three-member business panel had been appointed to advise him on changing the controversial section 457 visa program.
“Skills and labour shortages are a major cause of inflationary pressures in the economy,” he said. State governments and private firms had warned him that skilled labour shortages were hampering new and significant projects.
The Bureau of Statistics found a record 183,400 jobs vacant in November, and that number had been growing by roughly 15% a year. OECD figures revealed Australia was near the bottom of the developed world in spending on training for the unemployed.
The Howard government steadily increased the number of skilled migrant visas from 24,000 to 102,500 this financial year. The latest increase will lift this figure to 108,500, divided between employer-sponsored visas and those given to migrants with skills in demand.
“Employer-sponsored visas are the highest priority because they put a migrant worker directly into a skilled job,” Senator Evans said.
Generally, the working holiday program offers 12-month visas for young people if they come from countries providing the same employment access for young Australians. The rules already allow the visa to be extended a year for young people who take jobs for three months or more in regional Australia in agriculture, forestry, fishing or mining industries.
Senator Evans said their numbers, which almost trebled from 2690 to 7990 last financial year, were expected to hit 12,000 in 2007-08. “Extending this visa concession to work in construction industry in regional Australia could attract a further 5000 workers to that industry alone.”
After announcing last week that firms using section 457 visas would be required to consult the relevant union before their sponsorship application could be approved, he also moved to mend fences with business by appointing a panel to advise on priority areas for the scheme.
The panel will be chaired by Xstrata Australia chairman Peter Coates, a former head of the Minerals Council of Australia, and will include Melinda Cilento, deputy head of the Business Council of Australia, and Tim Shanahan, former head of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia.
The business leaders would be asked to tell the Government how the scheme could best be organised to tackle skills shortages. They will provide an interim report by March 14 and a final one in April.
The Coalition’s immigration spokesman, Chris Ellison, welcomed the panel’s appointment but dismissed the increase in skilled migration as “a drop in the ocean”.