Looming Boom Prompts Calls For Changes To Australia's Skilled Worker Visas

During the last boom the West Australian mining industry relied on hundreds of skilled trades people and mining personnel from the eastern states, and overseas, to fill positions created by the state's flood of construction and mining activities. Fast-forward over half a decade and it's a vastly different situation. The demand for these skills is now back to similar levels seen at the end of 2013 but this time round the people are not there to fill them.

Construction and building booms on the east coast have drained the available talent pool of those trades and with around five to ten years worth of projects lined up, it's a situation that doesn't look like changing any time soon. Add to that the number of West Australian tradies who went east for work after the last downturn and aren't prepared to return just yet, and the situation is becoming almost dire. 

Of course some of the problem lies with the industry itself. Past booms have typically seen people prepared to head to remote areas in return for big pay cheques but the industry's well known habit of laying off workers and halting construction projects as soon as there is a sniff of a bust is now coming home to roost. As many of those in the recruitment industry have been warning, people are no longer prepared to risk it. And particularly not when there is more reliable, steady work to be found elsewhere in other industries.

That means the state's more than $75 billion worth of new resource and mining projects is on the line. Along with the tens of thousands of jobs that will go with it. Although if they can't find the people to fill those tens of thousands of jobs it's probably a moot point. But at the moment there are hundreds of vacancies across the Pilbara and at least another thousand in Kalgoorlie. Those numbers are growing by the week. Trades currently required include auto electricians, diesel mechanics, metal fitters, truck drivers, and welders. As construction projects come on line there will also be an increasing demand for construction trades. However, not only are already qualified personnel in short supply but both apprenticeships and traineeships in most of these trades are also on the decline.

Normally this is where a country will then begin to cast its eyes overseas for foreign workers but even that isn't easy in Western Australia. Australian immigration policies have already changed since the last boom and the useful 457 visa has been replaced by the Temporary Skill Shortage Visa (TSS subclass 482). Then there is the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS or subclass 187 visa), a Department of Home Affairs migration program under which employers in regional Australia can sponsor qualified overseas professionals and graduates.

The problem however is that ....

In 2017 WA got a new premier. One of the first things he did once in office was remove Perth from the scheme. He then removed all bar 18 professions from the Western Australian Skilled Migration Occupation List. Those 18 are ALL medical professions. Therefore, any WA employer wanting to bring in overseas employees in professions outside those 18 medical professions has to go via the Graduate Occupation List instead. And that is only available to overseas workers who want to qualify via the graduate stream, which involves spending a certain amount of time training at a WA educational institution. In other words, there is currently no way an already qualified overseas professional in the construction or mining industries, or in any of the related industries apart from health services, can be (easily) brought into the state.

This has prompted calls by the industry for the state government to revisit the occupation list sooner rather than later. And for the Federal Government to remove or revise, amongst other things, the current requirements of 3 years work experience for international students who have graduated from Australian universities, and the 45-year upper age limit. 

Will any of these recommendations by the Australian Chamber of Minerals and Energy, and the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA, be acted upon by either or both governments?

If they aren't, the Australian mining industry and thus the Australian economy in general, is in for some pretty tough times. And given that mining is one of the biggest contributors to the country's coffers it's hard to see those Governments not coming to the party. At least to some degree.
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Tuesday, 20 April 2021
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