Constant reviews to temporary migration erode confidence in the system: CEDA CEO

Australia’s temporary migration system has been subject to constant reviews which damage community trust in the system and disrupt workforce planning for business, CEDA CEO Melinda Cilento has told a CEDA audience.

Speaking in Sydney at the release of CEDA’s Effects of temporary migration report in Sydney, Ms Cilento discussed the report recommendations and why they are important for building stability and predictability in the system and addressing community concerns.

“One of the reasons we did this report was to address concerns head-on and to try put some facts and some evidence into the space, and actually put forward recommendations that responded not just to business concerns but also to community concerns.

“Temporary skilled migrants in Australia account for less than one per cent of the total labour force. Even at the height of the resources boom, it was 1.4 per cent. This is not a tsunami of skilled workers coming into Australia, this is a targeted, challenging program.

“Building confidence in the community that we're not taking jobs from Australians is a difficult challenge, it does require a system with integrity.

“We do need to maintain community confidence in that process but if you think …about the size of the total temporary skilled workforce compared to the total workforce, if you think about their characteristics, if you think about the integrity of the process…then look at the history of reviews that we outline in our report, it seems completely disproportionate to the scale of this program.”

Ms Cilento said the changes and reviews without consultation needed to stop, as it causes disruption to workforce planning.

“We need to stop the revolving door of reviews. You cannot have this persistent review process, where every time something gets raised, you review the thing again and change it. You don't let changes bed down and you never actually understand what the impact of those changes are,” she said.

“We've recommended that the Productivity Commission be tasked with undertaking regular reviews every three to five years.”

Ms Cilento said the other report recommendations were to ensure a predictability that builds business and community confidence, “because if you're changing something every 18 months, no one thinks it's working.”

“We think you can increase the transparency of the skilled list now. This is about getting more stakeholders involved, people understanding the methodology, the process and the data, so that (there is) greater confidence that the occupations on that list really do represent skilled shortages.

“The occupation codes haven't been updated for ages. If you think about how quickly the labour market is changing you've got to update those occupation codes. The ABS does not have the money, the ABS should have the money. That's a no-brainer, it's really important.

“Intracompany transfers – we all know big companies manage their workforces globally. At the moment the process is too complex and it's just unnecessary red tape.

“We think that should change, creating over time an independent committee to look at this.”

Ms Cilento said that it is not surprising immigration is a topic of interest given that two million migrants, out of seven million in the last 70 years, have arrived in the last decade.

“We've managed those levels of immigration pretty well on the whole. The Scanlon Foundation research shows that 80 per cent of Australians believe that migration has been good for Australia, which is a really positive thing and something that we should speak to, always,” she said.

“So, while we have our debates and there are contested views on the whole, people understand this has been a positive for Australia but there are concerns.

“Many of the concerns of course centre on the scale of immigration where migrants settle primarily in our largest cities and whether and what impact immigration is having on public amenities, social cohesion, education, jobs.

“For most people, when we talk about immigration, we tend to speak about permanent migration, or I think that's what settles in people's minds.

“Which is why actually we wanted to call out temporary migration and the role that temporary migration has. At the moment two million people in Australia are temporary migrants.

“Migration is very responsive to policy and it's very responsive to economic conditions.

“At the height of the resources boom there were about 680,000 primary temporary skilled visa holders in Australia.

“At the moment there's about…32,000, so that just shows you how responsive that is and of course there's really strong growth in student visas…a response not only to our strong economy but also changes in policy.

“Prior to (2017) about 55 percent of temporary skilled migrants stayed permanently. I think there's a perception that maybe students, or an unreasonable number of students, end up staying permanently in Australia, however 84 per cent end up going home.

“What's the impact on our labour market? So often we hear temporary skilled migrants take the jobs of Australians; that they have an adverse impact on jobs and wages in Australia.

“The short answer is that our modelling work showed that there has not been an adverse impact on participation and wages, or unemployment, and in fact, for certain groups with certain skills and expertise, the impact has actually been positive.

“The fact of the matter is though that no matter how good our education system is there are always going to be skill needs in this economy, that cannot be met locally.

“For starters, we have a really significant resources sector. When you look at the scale of the projects and the amount of skills and labour needed to deliver those projects, …not just with the skills, but the experience of having built these things in the past and having used that technology, we're always going to need those skills.

“It’s highly unlikely that we'll ever be able to have that amount of skill and experience here and if we did, what would they do for the five or 10 years in between projects?

“The second thing to call out is that our economy does undergo big structural shifts. We’re undergoing a big structural shift at the moment. There is a huge demand for skills in the tech space, anyone with cybersecurity skills, data skills.

“We are going to need these skills and companies are using these skills not just to plug gaps but to build expertise. The examples we cite in our report are tremendous examples of businesses here in Australia building more opportunity by importing skills and growing their own workforces.

“That is something that we do not talk about or acknowledge anywhere near enough.

“We need to make sure that every aspect (of the system) is actually working as efficiently and effectively and as well as it could for business because it needs to.”

Joining the panel discussion was Small Business & Economic Strategy Division, Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, First Assistant Secretary, Peter Cully; Fragomen Practice Leader and Director of Government Relations (Asia Pacific), Justin Gibbs; University of Technology Sydney Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (International), Iain Watt and DXC Technology Human Resources Director, ANZ, Cian Zoller.