Recent figures reveal 21,877 skilled migrants came to WA in 2015-16, when the State’s unemployed hit 44,700.
Industry experts told a Curtin University/WestBusiness Outlook Series roundtable event government and industry should invest in education and training to ensure migrant workers did not crowd out opportunities for locals.
Additionally, the State should foster an environment for skilled migrants to thrive in areas of demand.
Despite WA’s economic slump, bricklayers are still on the Government’s list of urgently needed skilled migrants.
ABN Group managing director Dale Alcock said this showed how misaligned the system was with the needs of industry.
“The skills list is not dynamic,” he said. “Clearly we are in a down period in terms of construction so why should plasterers, tilers, bricklayers and electricians be on that list today?”
The skills list, released by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, was highlighted by Curtin Business School research fellow Roslyn Cameron.
Dr Cameron used the department’s data in her BankWest Curtin Economic Centre report on minimising skills wastage and maximising the wellbeing of skilled migrants to WA.
She said more could be done to support skilled migrants who came to WA under their own steam, without employer sponsorship.
“They are the people who are on the skilled occupation list, they want to get to Australia, they have the skills but not a lot of safety nets when they get here,” she said.
These workers often plug skills shortages in regional WA.
Dr Cameron said more could be done to help these migrants settle into their chosen field, particularly in regional areas.
WA shadow training and workforce development minister Fran Logan said the system failed these individuals by not enabling them to work in their professions.
A recent Department of Training survey of 117 migrants who came to WA under the skilled priority list showed only 35 per cent were employed in the job they came to do.
“It shows the system is not following up on the nominations for skilled migrant visas to ensure they go into the occupations they have been nominated for,” Mr Logan said.
The Department of Training and Workforce Development’s WA director of service delivery operations Jodie Wallace, said it was nearly impossible to regulate the skilled migration system.
“A lot of independent skilled migrants are coming in through the (Federal) Department of Immigration,” she said. “As a State, we have little or no control over which skilled migrants actually arrive in the State.”
Ms Wallace said the State’s nominated migration program had reduced as its economy slowed. The department nominated 348 skilled migrant positions last financial year, compared with 4442 in 2012-13.
“That has diminished significantly based on the labour market,” she said. “While the labour market is softer you don’t want as many skilled migrants coming in that you don’t need.”
Australian Hotels Association chief executive Bradley Woods said migration policy issues were symptomatic of WA’s underlying problem of not providing adequate training locally.
“We are not putting enough Australians in apprenticeships to fill these positions in the longer term and therefore we are reliant on international labour to fill these positions,” he said.
“In a boom period we need to have trades that can fill demands. The (skills) list needs to shift dynamically according to peaks and troughs.”
UnionsWA secretary Meredith Hammat said the 16 per cent unemployment rate in the Peel region reflected the State’s lacklustre approach to providing local training opportunities.
“We missed an opportunity during the good years of the mining boom to invest in young people to develop skills and I think we are seeing the legacy of that now,” she said.
Ms Hammat said WA “failed a generation in those good times”.
Mr Alcock agreed the Peel region, with high suicide and unemployment rates, was a “travesty” that needed fixing.
He said industry and government should invest in training on a counter-cyclical basis and take a long-term view.
“If we can grow these apprentices now in this down market, they will be valuable to us when the sun is shining and the birds are tweeting again,” he said.
“You might say the general unsophisticated approach is ‘now I need it, that’s where short-term 457 (visa) plugs the gap’ — I don’t believe that’s fair to a young population in this State with expectations.”
Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA chief executive Deidre Willmott said there was a disturbing recent trend in WA of hiring fewer apprentices.
Mr Logan used Western Power as an example of the State’s trend away from training its workforce.
He said the electricity provider did not hire one new apprentice this year, when it usually took on 100 new apprentices annually.
“The State Government has got the capacity to employ people across a range of trades and occupations, to train and bring in young people, but it is not doing it,” he said.
Ms Willmott said the State should learn from the boom times, when it had been forced to source skilled migrants.
“Every time we have had an increase in economic activity we have had a shortage of skills,” she said.
“It should be part of our DNA that we know we will face a skills shortage, if not next year then in five years. We should be ready to respond.”
By Claire Tyrrell – orginally published by The West Australian on October 11, 2016, access here.