Bob Birrell and Bob Kinnaird
[This post was first published in the March 2017 newsletter of Sustainable Population Australia. It has been republished on John Menadue’s blog – Pearls and Irritations]
The permanent skilled migration program should be cut by nearly half, from 128,000 (primary and secondary applicants) to around 70,000. This includes migrants granted visas under the points test and those sponsored by employers.
Our political leaders have prioritised growth in the migrant intake over other pressing concerns. These include the migrant contribution to city congestion and housing costs. You might think that our leaders would also be worried about the job competition for locals. Almost all proclaim their concern about jobs for Australians. Yet they are mute about the obvious clash between current immigration policy settings and Australian jobs.
This article summarises our research on the seriousness of this clash and how migration advocates manage to avoid critical scrutiny. Our focus here is on the permanent entry program rather than on the 457 program – detailed in the published report.[i]
The ABS estimates that Australia’s total population growth (some 340,000 a year) is adding around 280,000 a year to the civilian population aged 15 plus. If past work force participation rates continue, 65 per cent (or some 180,000) of this additional population will enter the labour market.
Yet in the year to November 2016, the growth in the number employed in Australia fell to just 87,000. Other signs confirming a weakening labour market are that almost all of the growth of employment in the last few years has been in part-time work and that there has been no growth in the total number of hours worked by those employed.
This is hardly a time to be running a record high permanent entry migration program of around 205,000, or to be encouraging the intake and prolonged stay of those holding temporary visas with generous work rights. These include students, Working Holiday Makers and temporary workers on 457 visas. An egregious example is the rule allowing overseas students to apply for tourist visas when their student visa expires. 35,877 were granted such visas in 2015-16. Does the government really think that many of these former students, with expenses to cover, will not work illegally?
The total stock of these temporaries has risen to around 1.3 million, excluding New Zealanders. They are providing ferocious competition for young job seekers. That is why the unemployment rate for persons aged 15-24 has reached 13 per cent and why increasing numbers are forced into internships and other forms of unpaid work.
Yet there is little sign from leading politicians and commentators of any rethink on the migration policies contributing these outcomes.
Why is this? The answer may be obvious to SPA members. Population growth is seen by the government and business interests as boosting the economy at a time when expenditure on resource industry investment has fallen from around 8 per cent of GDP in 2012 to around 4 per cent in 2016. The views of the current Governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe are typical. He has declared that population growth is the key to offsetting Australia’s current difficult economic setting. He argues that if Australia continues with the fastest rate of population growth amongst OECD countries this will drive Australia’s economic growth since migrants ‘will require somewhere to live, to work and to play’.[ii]
How do our political leaders get away with it? It is partly because they have created a smokescreen of (false) claims that the ‘skilled’ permanent and temporary entry programs only recruit highly skilled persons in short supply in Australia. On this basis, they assert that these recruits do not worsen local job opportunity. Our recent research, summarised below, refutes these claims.
The skilled migration smokescreen
The permanent resident skilled program
This is currently set at 128,000 (primary applicants and dependents). About two thirds are selected via the points-tested visa subclasses and the rest mainly via employer sponsorship. The Australian points-test and its alleged success in recruiting highly skilled migrants is regularly touted as a model for European nations to emulate as they struggle to manage their migrant influx.
These claims are taken seriously because of one key feature. This is that eligibility for the points tested visa subclasses is limited to those in occupations listed on the Skilled Occupation List (SOL). This list was introduced in 2010 at a time when the previous selection system was in disarray because of the huge number of cooks and hairdressers being visaed. The 2010 SOL was limited to managerial, professional or trade level occupations judged to be in overall national shortage. Cooks and hairdressers were not included.
On the face of it, this policy remains intact. The Australian government conducts an annual review of the SOL, where the public is invited to submit their views about whether particular occupations should be on the SOL or not. But this is a façade.
The growing evidence of oversupply in major professions like accounting and engineering has had little impact on the SOL. For example, the Department of Employment has recently recommended that accountants be removed. The Department of Health did the same for general practitioners (and some other health professions, including dentists) in the course of the 2015-16 review of the SOL.[iii] This advice was rejected.
The government has justified this stance by changing the criteria for judging when an occupation is in oversupply. SOL listing is now determined not by the current state of the Australian labour market, but by the government’s expectations about the medium to long term demand for skilled workers in the relevant occupations.
The Coalition Government makes no bones about its position. Its advice to those putting submissions on the 2016-17 SOL is that the SOL is concerned only:
With ‘medium to long term’ skills needs rather than immediate skills shortages. As such, the Department of Education and Training is only seeking information on longer term trends rather than immediate shortages and costs. ‘Medium to long term’ means 2-10 years.[iv]
No matter what is said in the annual review of the SOL about oversupply problems in particular occupations right now, the government can (and usually does) claim that when ‘normal’ rates of economic growth and job demand return, additional skilled migrants will be needed. This policy stance hides the government’s main priority, which is achieving its skilled migration numerical target. This would be gutted if currently oversupplied occupations like accounting, engineering and ICT were removed from the SOL. This is because they comprise nearly half of all the migrants granted visas after passing the points test.
So much for the claim that the program complements the domestic workforce. What about the boast that the migrants recruited are highly skilled?
Nearly two-thirds of those visaed under the points-tested visa subclasses were offshore applicants. All they have to do to meet the skills criteria of the test is attest that they have experience in their nominated occupation (usually at least eight years) and that they possesses degree level qualifications (from any of a vast number of educational institutions across the globe with greatly differing standards). There is no assessment at all as to whether they are ‘highly skilled’ or that their work experience is even relevant to employer needs in Australia.
For applicants applying in Australia, success is guaranteed if they hold bachelor level qualifications from an Australian university in any of the occupations listed on the SOL (like ICT or accounting), are aged less than 33 and have reached ‘Proficient’ level English (level 7 on the IELTS test). No job experience in their occupation is required. When these former overseas students enter the Australian job market, they add to an already oversupplied graduate labour market that puts a premium on experience and face the same problem as local graduates.
The employer sponsored permanent skilled program
In contrast to the points-tested category, the government claims employer sponsored permanent visas do ‘fill (current) skills shortages in the Australian labour market’.
But this claim is also mostly a facade. There is no genuine and rigorous testing of the Australian labour market to establish that no Australian workers are available at going market rates. The main ‘test’ is simply that the sponsoring employer says there is a shortage of Australian workers. For some employer-sponsored visas in regional Australia, the State government department responsible for regional development assesses whether Australian workers are available ‘locally’ (not nationally). These agencies usually have regional population growth as part of their charter.
Employer-sponsored permanent migrants may be less skilled than the points-tested skilled migrant group as lower skill levels and lower English language requirements apply. In 2015-16, only 26 per cent of employer-sponsored permanent migrants had occupations listed on the SOL.
The permanent skilled program could easily be cut in half by removing occupations like ICT, accounting, engineering, GPs and specialist doctors currently oversupplied from the SOL and by restricting employer-sponsored migrants to occupations on the SOL combined with rigorous labour market testing.
Dr Bob Birrell is President and Bob Kinnaird is a Research Associate, of the Australian Population Research Institute.
[i] Bob Birrell, Ernest Healy and Bob Kinnaird, Immigration Overflow: Why is Matters, The Australian Population Research Institute, December 2016
[ii] Phillip Lowe, 2014, Building on Strong Foundations, Address to the Australian Business Economists Annual Dinner, Reserve Bank, 25 November, p. 5
[iii] On the issue of GPs, see Mike Moynihan and Bob Birrell, December 2016, Doctor Oversupply-Ignoring the evidence, The Australian Population Research Institute.