04 October 2006

Australia's skills crisis: migrants to be fast-tracked

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The Sydney Moring Herald is reporting Australia currently has 99,600 job vacancies open to skilled workers. The list published by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations lists 16,900 positions for labourers, factory and machine workers and 11,400 positions for people trained in food, hospitality and tourism.

As a result of these vacancies, Australian companies will be given the task of screening the skills of new overseas recruits in their home countries under a Federal Government scheme to fast-track the supply of labour in areas where there are shortages.

Despite criticism that business is increasingly relying on overseas labour, the Government is stepping up its effort to attract skilled workers from abroad.

The workers will be funnelled through offshore skills assessment centres. These will be set up in countries that the Government believes have the greatest potential for providing workers who can fill existing skills shortages in Australia.

They include India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, South Africa and Britain. The centres will target people in trades where there are critical shortages. These include electricians, motor mechanics, carpenters and joiners, bricklayers, plumbers, hairdressers and refrigeration and air conditioning mechanics.

A spokesman for the Minister for Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, said the system was part of a "new national approach to skills recognition" that the state and federal governments agreed on this year.

The executive director of TAFE Directors Australia, Martin Riordan, said the idea was a "good short-term opportunity" but that more needed to be done to "align skills migration with skills training in Australia".

Mr Riordan said the Government should invest more in attracting overseas students to vocational education centres in Australia in the same way they lured overseas university students.

The Government wants its new offshore skills assessment centres to be in place by the middle of next year.

They would not require any change to the existing migration system but would mean people applying to come to Australia as skilled workers would have their capabilities assessed in their native countries. At the moment they must send paperwork to Australia for assessment. Only registered training organisations will be considered as candidates to run the new centres, according to tender documents put out by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations.

The Government has been forced to defend what is frequently referred to as a skills crisis: a declining number of workers in particular areas that compels employers to look overseas for employees.

The Australian Industry Group estimates there will be a shortfall of 240,000 workers with vocational qualifications over the next decade even after projections of skilled migrants have been taken into account. The latest skills report from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations lists 99,600 vacancies for skilled workers. This includes 16,900 positions for labourers, factory and machine workers and 11,400 positions for people trained in food, hospitality and tourism.

The Reserve Bank has been warning for some time that lack of skilled workers could slow economic growth and inflate wages.

Last month the Minister for Immigration, Amanda Vanstone, defended the numbers of skilled migrants, saying it was "not overstating it to say that skilled migrants are the engine room of the economy".

A further eight occupations were added to the Department of Immigration's Migration Occupations in Demand List last month, including child-care workers, surveyors and electrical and mechanical engineers.

The Opposition education spokeswoman, Jenny Macklin, said proper assessment was vital to stop the rorting of the 457 temporary visa program.

Mr Riordan said: "The system is skewed in favour of two-year courses like cooking, which has resulted in a huge influx of students to fast-track permanent residency. We recommend a review of other trade courses if we are to be serious about tackling skills shortages."

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