Opinion article

World class Australian innovation needs a globally mobile workforce

To coincide with CEDA's research report Effects of temporary migration, CSL Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Andrew Cuthbertson AO discusses the importance of temporary migrants to their unique workforce and Australia's global competitiveness.

CSL is a home-grown Australian success story. As a Melbourne-based, multinational biopharmaceutical company, it is the nation’s largest and most successful innovation-focused advanced manufacturing company.  Australian mum-and-dad investors own $27 billion of CSL, Australian institutional shareholders (think super) another $26 billion.

Actively and successfully competing in a global intellectual property-based industry means that our people are our most important asset.  

We have to work hard and smart. We have to employ the best and the brightest. And our business depends on remaining competitive in a cut-throat global race to develop new products.  

In a nation with a small population, a small market size and geographically isolated we must keep up with Europe and the USA on the front-line of global biopharmaceutical innovation.  

CSL employs more than 3000 Australians in a global workforce of 22,000 staff and has a long and significant track record of developing and training our employees and graduates, supporting independent medical research, and promoting STEM education in Australian schools and universities.   We have played a major role in training generations of this nation’s scientists, researchers and sector business leaders.  We recognise the importance of our leadership in supporting the growth and sustainability of Australian biotechnology and the individuals within it.

But there is simply not enough large scale R&D or manufacturing of pharmaceuticals in Australia to support a world-class talent pool without augmenting our workforce with some suitably qualified foreign nationals.  

CSL is Australia’s only plasma fractionator, only onshore influenza vaccine manufacturer, and only large scale biotech manufacturer.  Our advanced manufacturing facilities in Victoria are unique in Australia.

Less than three per cent of our workforce are on working visas but they play a critical role in maintaining the viability of our specialised R&D and manufacturing.  

Temporary skilled visa holders are needed to meet skills gaps we cannot recruit locally because of our unique industry and operating activities. They also help us to maintain internationally consistent operating procedures and global integration of our Victorian manufacturing.  

Further, internationally recognised researchers help supplement Australian skills with leading-edge scientific expertise. They also help train and transfer world-class skills and knowledge to the Australian workforce and help us understand and establish lines of business that generate new employment opportunities for Australians.

CSL also uses temporary skilled visas to provide global professional development and succession planning opportunities for Australian employees and incoming expatriates. In fact, at any one time we have more Australian employees offshore gaining global experience than we have foreign citizens working onshore. But you can’t have one without the other.     

Foreign nationals employed by CSL make an eminently measurable contribution to Australia’s health and wealth as well as the ongoing success of the company. Highly skilled individuals however, have plenty of choice.  

When government implements increasingly difficult migration processes that are either not fit-for-purpose or fail to provide reasonable security of tenure, it very tangibly and specifically damages Australia’s attractiveness as a destination. It also forces us to construct our workforces from a patchwork of visas, shoehorning our people into occupation lists that are inflexible and outmoded. Meanwhile our competitors in the US and Europe can rely on their internal markets or intra-company transfers.

Australia needs a visa system that balances the protection and development of the local workforce while allowing Australian companies access to international talent. Restricting the ability to recruit a modest number of international personnel severely harms innovative businesses and in the mid to long term will almost certainly reduce, not increase, the number of employment opportunities for Australians.  

We want Australia to be competitive and counted within the top tier of innovation nations, known and respected for its welcoming business environment, excellence in science, research and commercialisation. To achieve this our migration policy must be modern, flexible and competitive with peer nations. Encouraging collaboration across international borders is important, as is making this country a desirable destination for global talent.
About the authors

Andrew Cuthbertson

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After completing medical training at the University of Melbourne and PhD in Immunology at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Australia, Professor Cuthbertson spent five years doing molecular biology research as a staff member at the Howard Florey Institute in Melbourne and the National Institutes of Health in the United States. He then spent seven years at Genentech Inc in San Francisco, working on anti–VEGF therapy for age related macular degeneration. In 2016 he was made an Enterprise Professor, Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne and an Officer of the Order of Australia for his services to medical research. Professor Cuthbertson, the Chief Scientific Officer, was recruited to CSL in 1997 and in 2018 was appointed as an Executive Director on the CSL Limited Board.

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