Australia’s skills shortage is nothing new, but it was exacerbated by pandemic border closures. When the borders closed and Australia’s economy retreated into an uncertain Covid hibernation, many foreign workers swiftly returned to their home countries. But the border closures also halted Australia’s migrations programmes which had been granting 160,000 permanent visas annually.
For decades, Australia has relied on immigration to help fill the gaps in its workforce. The result is a multicultural nation where about a third of Aussies were born somewhere else. But for the first time since World War II, Australia experienced a net outflow of migrants with a total of 97,000 people leaving last year and 77,400 expected to leave this year. This loss of migrants has left Australian businesses desperate for help to fill jobs as the economy recovers.
This reality got me thinking — if Australia really wants to support businesses and become a global tech hub, what policies would I recommend to make it easier for startups to hire skilled workers, particularly skilled foreign-born workers?
Here are two (of many) immigration policy changes that I would recommend to support startups hiring skilled foreign talent.
Updating the Skilled Occupations List to help the Australian tech sector grow
The TSS (Temporary Skill Shortage) visa program — also known as the 482 visa — is a temporary visa that allows visa holders to live in Australia while working full-time for a sponsoring employer. This full-time job must be a nominated occupation listed on either the Short-Term Skilled Occupations List (often referred to as STSOL) or Medium Long-Term Strategic Skilled List (similarly referred to as MLTSSL). Currently, the Short-Term Skilled Occupations List includes 215 occupations which are reviewed every six months.
While the Medium Long Term Skilled List allows workers to stay for up to four years, the Short-Term Skilled Occupations List allows workers to stay in Australia for only two years. It is possible to renew the STSOL visa once while living in Australia for an additional two years, and the visa holder might be able to renew for an additional two years if they apply from outside of Australia.
Australian employers are bound by the Skilled Occupations List, but frequently, the high-skilled, specialised jobs they need to fill don’t always align with the kind of jobs that are on the Skilled Occupations List. For example, “data scientist,” “blockchain engineer,” and other modern job titles are nowhere close to what’s on the list today. This causes companies to mismatch actual job titles to fit visa applications, which then makes it difficult to then find the right candidate.
To support Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19, the country released a Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL) which includes a list of skilled occupations that the Australian government says are critical. It was first announced in September 2020 and was created to address the impact of the pandemic on the Australian labour market and the resulting changing skill demands. Visa applicants with a job on the PMSOL list are given priority processing for four different visa categories, including the TSS visa.
In June, Australia added 22 occupations to the PMSOL list, including accountants, cartographers, and chefs. There are now 44 occupations on the PMSOL, but, in my opinion, the additions aren’t enough to address all the specialty occupations needed by Australia’s growing startup ecosystem.
It’s time that Australia updates the Skilled Occupations List to better support companies, especially tech companies, in need of skilled workers, and officially add job types and titles that match not just the world we live in today, the where the world is heading.
In addition to adding new, modern jobs to the SOL, we should add flexibility to the 482 visa’s relevant work experience requirement. Here’s why.
Australia's 482 visa needs the 2-year relevant work experience requirement to be more flexible
Australia’s 482 visa is officially called the Temporary Skill Shortage visa and is, at a high level, similar to America’s H-1B visa or Canada’s Global Talent Stream. One of the 482 visa’s main requirements, other than a bachelor’s degree, is two years of relevant work experience. But this requirement ignores the fact that many employers hire individuals with transferable skills that will enable them to succeed in their new role despite them not having that exact prior experience.
It’s here that I think the 482 visa should be more flexible in order to help Australia truly compete on a global scale.
The two-year work experience requirement greatly shrinks the eligible pool of talent, and also makes it hard to hire for new types of positions that haven’t been around for long enough for candidates to even have two years of experience.
For example, a talented cryptocurrency analyst might not have precisely two years of experience in that exact field, but they might have many years of experience working in financial technology or another related field.
Or a business analyst with 10 years of experience analysing financial data who wants to work as a data analyst at a tech company, under the 482 visa rules, might not be eligible.
Or, a pharmacist who has studied, trained, and worked in the pharmaceutical industry who wants to work at a health tech company doing pharmaceutical data analysis, might not be eligible because they don't have two years of data analysis experience.
The point is that in normal hiring situations, employers take transferable skills into account quite often and give employees space to grow into their roles. But with the 482 visa’s two-year relevant experience requirement, that’s not really possible.
The 482 visa program, and thus the country, can benefit from more flexibility when welcoming skilled workers into Australia.
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Gilton Valeo Lawyers is a Sydney based incorporated legal practice specialising in corporate migration, founded in 1982.
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