Opinion: When Local Jobs Dry Up, So Too Should 457 Visa Numbers

The engineering profession has just struggled through 29 consecutive months of declining job vacancies and if the 457 visa system was working properly, we would also be seeing a big decline in the number of 457 visas granted to plug skills gaps in the engineering profession.

The Courier-Mail, by Blake Harvey, 5 November 2014

But we’re not.

The 457 visas exist to allow Australian companies to recruit the best skills for their projects on a needs basis.

Regarding engineering projects, it is reasonable for Australians to expect that a range of projects from the built environment to our growing list of infrastructure needs to be designed and built by the best minds in the engineering profession, irrespective of whether they are Australian-based or brought in from offshore.

Australia is part of a global market for high-end skills and we should be comfortable with Australian-based professionals being in demand overseas, and overseas professionals plugging gaps in our own capabilities. But there are loopholes in the way the current system works.

With state and federal governments major players in infrastructure investment in Australia, it is increasingly apparent that major infrastructure decisions are being driven by election cycles.

Economic cycles, combined with these electoral cycles, have created an unpredictable famine and feast environment for the more than 60,000 engineers employed in infrastructure delivery across the country.

Engineers and their employers are often the hardest hit by fluctuations in infrastructure investment.

These boom-bust cycles mean employers lack the long-term certainty needed to train and sustain a domestic workforce, and local training and education providers lack the certainty to make the long-term investments needed to grow domestic enrolments and graduations. This affects the productivity, capability and cost of our engineering resources over time.

Just like any worker facing unemployment, engineers will look for any available work, even if this means taking a job outside of their profession. The challenge is to attract these engineers back to the profession when demand returns, often resulting in shortfalls or unsustainable spikes in wages.

Currently, more than 37 per cent of qualified engineers work in non-engineering roles in this country and this is one of the major causes behind historical skills shortages.

It is also one of the main reasons Australia continues to rely on skilled migration.

More than 50 per cent of Australia’s engineering workforce is now overseas born, which is among the highest proportion of any professional group. While permanent skilled migration is designed to address long-term structural deficits in our domestic skills base, it is the short-term, temporary measure 457 visas that are designed to plug immediate workforce gaps.

In times of local downturns where job losses dominate news headlines, the thought of temporary migrant labour being used to fill vacancies is highly contentious, and this continues to be a point of significant debate across our engineering workforce.

Despite the requirement for companies to prove local labour solutions do not exist, exemptions to the rules provide exemptions for any engineering occupation requiring a three or four-year tertiary qualification.

Fortunately, the majority of Australian employers act in line with community expectations and treat 457 visas as a last resort to solve real problems in recruiting skilled staff. But, in practice, employers do not have to prove that there are actually local labour shortages in the engineering profession when seeking to engage 457 workers.

No matter how responsible employers are, granting lots of 457 visas at times of local downturns does not serve the best interests of Australia, or the engineering profession.

If Australia is to successfully transition from a resource-dependent economy to a hi-tech, high-value economy, then we need to think beyond a three or four-year horizon, and voters need to reward governments for developing long-term visions for infrastructure investment.

Australia will not be able to build long-term reliance with temporary skilled migration. The policy setting should be simple: when local jobs dry up, so too should 457 numbers.

Over the last decade the engineering profession in Australia has been through a roller-coaster ride of huge highs and demoralising lows.

Australia needs more and better-quality public infrastructure, and Australian engineers want to build it, but governments at all levels can help create a more sustainable Australia domestic engineering workforce by more realistically moderating the peaks and troughs of their infrastructure promises.

Blake Harvey is the president of Engineers Australia’s Queensland Division

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