19 June 2006

America stokes up race for skilled workers

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Proposed changes in US immigration law have sounded alarm bells for Australia, New Zealand and Canada as they fear missing out in the race for skilled migrants.

As the world's largest economy, America has no shortage of skilled international workers looking to arrive on its shores, but a Senate-dictated low annual intake currently keeps immigrant numbers low.

But as part of the comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, the Senate recently passed a bill to increase annual employment-based migration from 140,000 to as much as 650,000, many workers entering through a new guest-worker program. The proposals also offer some immigrant workers a route to permanent residency in the US.

Also, under pressure from industry giants such as Microsoft and Intel, the Senate bill would, if ratified by the lower house, increase the number of the specialised worker visa (H-1B) holders from 65,000 a year to 115,000.

It's these same highly skilled and equally rare workers that Australia, New Zealand and Canada are also mostly looking to attract.

With Britain and South Africa also desperately short of certain skilled workers in an increasingly competitive marketplace, the indications are that the rest of the world will wait to see the impact of the US changes before reacting with legislation changes of their own.

"Certainly if the biggest economy in the world has upped its level of skilled migration, that is going to make it all that harder for smaller economies like Australia to attract skilled migrants," Mark Triffitt, director of communications at the Business Council of Australia, told Australian daily The Age.

"which is why you need the most competitive … incentives for them to decide on Australia rather than somewhere else.

"Ultimately it is a market-place for skilled labour, and it is an increasingly scarce marketplace given the level of demands in other countries."

Although the other nations most actively seeking skilled migrants have reason to be concerned, the impasse between the House and Senate over what to do with the US's estimated 12m illegal immigrants - the most controversial part of the bill seeks to give many of them the chance to stay legitimately in the country - looks set to prevent the plans being approved any time soon.

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