Regular changes to Australian visa policy have perpetuated a migration system that is “difficult to navigate” and disadvantages Australia in the highly competitive global marketplace, employment experts have warned during a recent ACS Think Tank panel.

Amidst repeated changes to migration policy in recent years, Australia’s overheated IT skills marketplace had pushed the boundaries of a migration system that had fallen well behind the market’s requirements, participants in the recent panel warned.

“It’s the hottest market I’ve seen in the 28 years I’ve been doing this,” said Haydn Bell, WA state manager with recruitment firms PeopleBank Limited and Leaders IT Services Pty Ltd, who called the COVID-19 pandemic “a red herring in the IT world, where everyone’s tried to get themselves online and digital in the shortest possible timeframe”.

“We’ve been struggling for the last 18 months to two years to find enough resources to meet the demand.”

While the promise of long-term residence in Australia remains an attractive incentive for many overseas candidates, the increasing fluidity of work had enabled skilled overseas candidates to not only engage with employers in other countries remotely, but to shop themselves on a global stage filled with incentives that ultimately deprive Australia of the skilled workers that it needs.

Domestically, broad differences in migration policy had made the issue “a political football”, warned Dr David Cook, ACS vice president for Academic Boards – disadvantaging Australia on the world market.

“We are a country of only 25 million people,” he explained, “yet we’re competing in an IT digital economy with other countries that have many millions more people than we have.”

“So, it’s not a balanced playing field – and that affects the way things happen. And there’s no fixed [policy] that we can anchor ourselves to and say, ‘this is how it’s going to be for the next 10 years’.”

Regular changes to Australia’s visa policies – including changes to visa durations, the abandonment of established programs and the introduction of new categories such as Global Talent and Temporary Skills Shortage visas – have made planning difficult for potential skilled migrants, with applicants waiting up to 15 months for approval.

And while the new Labor government is currently working through a massive backlog of applicants after increasing the migration cap, ongoing delays risk Australia losing candidates to other countries with more amenable migration policies.

Resolving the graduate dilemma

The problem starts early, noted Siobhan Casey, ACS director of Migration Pathways and Chief Growth Officer, who noted that many overseas students take long-term views towards career development, with visa certainty one of the factors influencing their decision to come to Australia versus targeting comparable countries like Canada, the US, and UK.

“Over the evolution of the Australian visa programmes, it has probably become a bit difficult to navigate,” she explained, “and there have been different visas added at different times.”

“I’ve heard from applicants and PhD students that ‘if I had this qualification and I was in Canada, I could potentially get a pathway to residency – but unfortunately, I can’t do so here or in the UK’.”

“The evidence is that students do look at the option of going to a particular country well in advance of picking their degree. It’s often a conversation with their family, and an expensive journey – so we do need to remain competitive.”

Limited prospects for graduates are only complicating the situation, Bell said, noting that companies engaging with recruiters are doing so to produce outcomes – and often don’t have the time or inclination to take on and train recent graduates.

“Our client base comes to us for experience, so it makes it very difficult for us to assist the industry on a graduate level,” he explained.

That leaves potential applicants with the message that they should graduate, go home to gain industry experience, and then apply to come back and stay in Australia as skilled migrants – but it is, Bell said, “a slippery slope if we start saying that ‘you have to go get the extra experience before you can do it’.”

Referencing a Grattan Institute report advocating for four-year visas that provide for job portability, Casey said that offering visas for longer terms “would give certainty to applicants, certainty to their families, and certainty to employers that are working with these talented people.”

AustCyber has previously warned that the chaotic migration situation – which also included the reduction of many visas to just two years – has directly impacted the viability of skills-dependent industries like cyber security.

And while employers are paying up to 24 per cent more for workers with advanced digital skills in areas like cloud technologies and AI – a disparity that Casey attributed to “supply and demand [being] out of whack” – she warned that the situation was favouring big corporates and disadvantaging small businesses that “are struggling to get the right talent because they can’t afford it… we do need to balance that supply and demand better.”