“Surprised” ICT industry bodies are questioning the wisdom of a federal government decision to deemphasise recruitment of cyber security specialists and programmers by removing 27 job roles from the official list of jobs used to prioritise skilled visas.

Home Affairs and Cyber Security Minister Clare O’Neil made the changes to the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL) as a way of helping clear the backlog of skilled visa applications that, she told the AFR, were adding up to 45 minutes to the processing of each application.

Amidst massive delays for processing of skilled migrant visas, the government committed $36.1 million to clear the backlog of visa applications and finalised 745,000 visa applications in June and July this year alone, including 9,550 temporary skilled visitor visas.

This number has since increased to 43,000 temporary skilled visas and 47,000 permanent skilled visa applications approved to date.

The new framework groups job roles into four categories, with priority going to health and education occupations, accredited employer applications, and applications from regional Australia.

Despite O’Neil’s claims that streamlining the PMSOL would reduce visa processing times, the removal of several ICT-related job roles – including ICT security specialists, analyst programmers, developer programmers, software engineers, and software and applications programmers – was incongruous given the impact of the recent spate of cyber security breaches that have plagued organisations including Medibank, Optus, Woolworths subsidiary MyDeal, Vinomofo, Toyota, Telstra, and ADF contractor ForceNet.

Compromised businesses have scrambled to catch up with cyber criminals, but with the industry long suffering a chronic shortage of cyber security specialists – and the recent surge in attacks further increasing demand that has already been pegged at 30,000 additional cyber security specialists by 2026 – industry bodies were questioning the wisdom of deprioritising cyber and other seriously deficient skills.

“Given Australia's ongoing chronic technology skills shortage, ACS is surprised IT visas are being de-prioritised,” ACS CEO Chris Vein said, “particularly given the important role tech plays in delivering the healthcare and education services the government is clearly looking at supporting with these changes.”

The Opposition wasted no time pouncing on the policy backflip, with Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Dan Tehan calling it “extraordinary that as Australia faces a growing threat from cyber criminals and scammers that Labor have removed… cyber-related roles from the PMSOL, making it harder for businesses to bring talented cyber professionals to this country to work.”

“Whose interests are served by making it harder for Australian businesses to bring cyber experts to this country to work to protect Australian citizens and their data,” Tehan asked. “Australians need more cyber protection, not less.”

Tech sector losing its primacy?

The changes to the PMSOL come just weeks after O’Neil lauded the government’s decision to boost Australia’s permanent migration numbers to 195,000 per year – including 142,400 skilled migration positions – in a move that she called “a turning point in our history as momentous as the post war ‘populate or perish’ program that was the foundation of our post-war reconstruction, nation building and national security.”

The new plan, she noted at the time, would “allow State and Territory Governments… to be responsive to skills shortages and plan for their future needs…. From software analysts to chefs, Australia will once again be attractive to prospective workers.”

With software analysts and chefs now removed from the list of priority visa applicants – along with other in-demand jobs including accountants, engineers, veterinarians and chief executives – some were questioning the strength of the government’s true commitment to skilled migration, particularly in light of Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Andrew Giles’ claim that “the Albanese Government is committed to re-establishing immigration as a nation-building function of Government.”

The PMSOL changes highlight the risks of trying to resolve Australia’s IT skills shortfall using migration, Vein said, and in so doing served as a reminder that “Australia has to also work on building our domestic workforce’s capabilities, encouraging businesses to invest in advanced technology and encourage students to enter STEM careers.”

The government has recently backed a range of support mechanisms to boost cyber and ICT skills development, with recent skills-related government policy decisions including a $60 million commitment to cyber security training grants and support for university training initiatives, and efforts to boost access to Indian talent through certification equivalency.

Last year, the former Morrison government actually expanded the PMSOL to help the cyber security better target its recruitment and skills development efforts.

Industry figures had responded warmly to previous government efforts to address the skills gap by boosting boost skilled migration.

“We welcome the government’s initiatives to strengthen training in priority industries while responsibly using migration to ease current critical skill and labour shortages,” Roy Lovli, head of IT consulting firm Kyndryl Consult, said in the wake of a recent federal Budget that, he said, left him “heartened to see the Federal Government embracing skills development and putting such focus on enabling Australia to be more sophisticated in technology to help future-proof our economy.”