It’s been a busy week for Australia’s SME community, thanks to the government’s surprise move to end the 457 visa program.
The result has been a sudden and fierce debate about the role of foreign workers in the nation’s workplaces, and whether the system has really been effective in servicing the needs of the country.
Local employees and contractors feel hard done by that businesses would use foreign employees instead of them. However, business owners report a difficulty in being able to attract appropriately skilled workers.
There are, of course, a multitude of reasons put forward as to why this may be the case. Yet having pored through many comments from business owners, workers and migration experts alike, there are two reasons that stand out to us at My Business:
1. A disconnection between the education and training that young people are receiving in our schools and universities, and what is actually required in the workforce. This presents a challenge for SMEs in particular, which often lack the resources to undertake advanced skills training with new recruits, given they need to take on employees who can ‘hit the ground running’.
2. A potential problem in the recruitment process itself. In some instances, it appears that businesses have positions vacant, and there actually are skilled workers available, but the two are somehow not reaching one another.
There is also the very basic point that Australia is a relatively small market on the world stage, meaning that there are only a limited number of skilled employees in any given field. As such, sectors where there are intense competition, or highly specialised operators in a very niche field, can feel the pinch of skills shortages quite acutely.
Yet in addition to simply finding people to fill roles, there is another factor at work in this complex debate – the role that internationally trained and practiced professionals can play in educating local workers.
Think IT professionals with the experience of having worked amid all the action of Silicon Valley; ultra-high-end hospitality workers coming from world-renowned restaurants and hotels in New York, London and Paris; elite business leaders and consultants capable of supporting Australian companies to improve their service offerings for a global marketplace.
While the announcement was unexpected and caught virtually everyone off guard, it is worthwhile to consider the timing.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made the announcement on Tuesday, 18 April – just weeks before the federal budget is due to be unveiled.
Could this be the first step in a major boost to the country’s education and training system, with a substantial allocation of funds to be delivered for specialised courses, professional development, apprenticeships and the like?
Such a move would fit with the government’s “innovation agenda” and publicly espoused promise to support growing SMEs. And, if properly targeted, it could help to produce more work-ready employees and contractors – reducing the gap between the skills needed by business and those being delivered to Australia’s students and young people.
I, for one, will be watching next month’s budget with interest to see whether the government’s move on 457 visas is actually part of a broader economic strategy to support businesses – and SMEs in particular – as well as local jobs growth, or if it is simply a political move on immigration policy.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business.