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COVID-19 creating skills shortages in the Australian workforce

COVID-19 has created a significant skills shortage in Australia – one that is affecting the way migration lawyers work, according to these three partners.

user iconLauren Croft 17 August 2021 Big Law
COVID-19 creating skills shortages in the Australian workforce
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In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, visa changes and border closures meant that hundreds of thousands of migrants were required to leave Australia. But according to these migration law partners, this sudden departure caused a significant disruption and a skills shortage in the Australian workforce.

Sophie Manera, partner at Tang Law, said that “COVID-19 has caused significant skill shortages, particularly in the hospitality, construction, agriculture and aged care sectors.”

“Many occupations in these industries are often filled by temporary visa holders, including international students and working holiday makers. Australia’s international border closure has led to a shortage of chefs, veterinarians, and trades workers, amongst many other occupations,” she said.


“Furthermore, there is also a shortage of workers in occupations considered to be lower skilled, such as aged carers and truck drivers.”

Partner at Estrin Saul Migration Lawyers, Daniel Estrin, said that certain industries flourished more than others post-pandemic, exposing skill shortages in surprising markets.

“When the pandemic started, the economy was shell shocked and unemployment skyrocketed. With programs like jobkeeper, business confidence slowly grew and projects that had been put on hold were restarted,” he said.

“While certain sectors plummeted, others surprisingly flourished (from homewares to electronic goods to the automotive industry). Spending was directed inwards rather than internationally and created new markets and opportunities.

“Hunger for post-lockdown hospitality and entertainment grew exponentially and pockets of dire skills shortages were exposed, whether it be engineers, maintenance planners or chefs.”

However, Jackson Taylor, partner at Hammond Taylor, argued that Australia has had a number of ongoing skill shortages that date back to before the pandemic.

“This includes high end skills such as software development, medical practitioners, nurses, etc. and at the manual level there are shortages in a number of trades and hospitality as well as skills which are not typically considered highly ‘skilled’ such as manual work in the agriculture sector,” he explained.

“It is worth noting that some experts in the field are challenging the underlying concept of ‘skills shortages’, whether from labour economics, public policy or demography. Some argue that the concept of skill shortage is inappropriate because there is a mismatch in the skills across the population and an unwillingness on the part of employers to increase the prevailing wage.

“At the same time, it is quite clear that many jobs which require extensive training, whether they be in STEM or the medical field for example, do not include skills which can be quickly or easily substituted by non-specialists in this area.

“[However], we are quite isolated and frankly, we don’t have all the answers. We rely on experts and expertise from other parts of the world to build better machines, improve efficiency and productivity, and immigration is often the best means to achieve that.”

Similarly, Mr Estrin said that Australia’s closed borders due to COVID-19 have shown “how reliant Australia is on a foreign workforce, from students and working holiday makers working in bars and cafes to highly skilled technical staff.”

He said this was particularly prevalent in Western Australia, where the mining industry currently has 40,000 vacancies and not enough labor.

“Australia is addicted to immigration and it is high time that we see it for what it is; an economic portfolio. Just read the latest intergenerational report to see that proportional migration is necessary for sustainable population growth,” he said.

“It was heartening to see the government act quickly to introduce a COVID-19 visa for critical sectors and its willingness to expand its Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL), which has grown to identify 44 occupations deemed to fill critical skills needs to support Australia’s economic recovery.

“However, even the most flexible migration program cannot combat weekly passenger caps of 265 into airports like Perth to service the mining sector, as an example,” Ms Estrin warned.

Whilst a COVID-19 visa exists for certain sectors, Ms Manera said that issues of skills shortages could be resolved faster if the government expanded the list of sectors eligible, in addition to relaxing other visa eligibility requirements.

“Current visa eligibility requirements could be relaxed for workers in critical sectors, such as reducing the two-year work experience requirement for the Subclass 482 Temporary Skill Shortage visa to one year, or removing the skills assessment requirement for the Subclass 494 Skilled Employer Sponsor Regional visa,” she said.

“This is a significant impediment to visa eligibility. These changes would allow businesses to fill positions that can’t be filled from the Australian labour market, while still ensuring that sufficiently skilled migrants are filling the positions. 

“Industries can also lobby the government to add occupations to the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List (PMSOL). A few voices can make a big difference.” 

A number of government policy changes have affected the skills shortage in the Australian workforce throughout the pandemic, according to Mr Tayor.

“The calls by the government for temporary visa holders to depart Australia at the start of the pandemic, and the failure to provide financial support for temporary visa holders resulted in the departure of approximately 500,000 people. Many of these people were working jobs that Australians did not want to, in fast food, hospitality and so forth. These sectors are now in dire need of workers in these areas,” he said.

“Secondly, the changes to the 457 work visa in 2018 resulted in a new temporary work visa program, the TSS 482, which does not provide the same access to skilled workers that the 457 did.

“The old 457 visa ‘covered the field’ meaning that anyone in a skilled occupation could obtain a visa. But the new 482 visa is limited to certain occupations and about 50 per cent of these are only eligible for two two-year visas.”

Mr Estrin added that there were “fundamental issues” with the government migration program – namely that applicants often have to lodge additional visa applications from overseas.

“There are thousands of skilled visa applicants in Australia who have been refused a visa and have appealed these decisions who are barred from further visa applications in Australia (with few exceptions) and must depart the migration zone to be able to lodge a further valid application,” he said.

“This leaves applicants with skills in demand or employers wishing to sponsor them with no option of regularising their visa status and choosing the most appropriate pathway.

“When the overarching government message is to avoid any international travel, it seems illogical to ask a sponsoring employer to send a skilled employee overseas with no immediate right to return, when a skilled visa option can be achieved by allowing the applicant to lodge onshore.”

Ms Manera said these visa challenges can be particularly tough not only on clients, but on migration lawyers as well.

“Migration lawyers want to help their clients find the best possible visa option, leading to win-win situations for migrants and employers. It’s mentally challenging to encounter skilled migrants on a daily basis who have limited visa options, despite being highly qualified, hard-working, and willing to fill a gap in the Australian labour market,” she said.

“Sometimes visa conditions, refusals and lengthy visa processing times are roadblocks to Australian economic growth. It’s challenging to tell a business owner that they can’t sponsor a valued worker due to a legal technicality.”

Additionally, migration lawyers are left with “new levels of anxiety and expectation management” according to Mr Estrin.

“We are now dealing with travel exemptions, inter-state travel bans, lockdowns, flight logistics and unprecedented cost blowout (flight prices are astronomical, even when they are available),” he said.

“Migration lawyers need to be very mindful to balance client expectations with the reality of the situation – what may have been possible two years ago is now a vastly different landscape.”

Mr Taylor added that those in migration law have been tasked with the difficult duty of trying to help many temporary visa holders who have been in the country for years, yet have no suitable pathway to permanent residency.

“In some cases, these people entered Australia with a clear pathway to permanent residency which was subsequently removed by policy changes. From my experience, these temporary migrants are highly adaptable and resilient and try to adapt with the system, but unfortunately for many it will mean that they have mortgaged the family farm for no real outcome,” he said.

“Critics may say that Australia reserves the right to make decisions in the best interest of the nation, and I agree to an extent, but I also ask why such changes are not made with better ‘grandfathering’ to protect the interests of those who arrive before the changes.”

As a result, Mr Estrin emphasised that migration lawyers increasingly need to make sure their clients are aware of the challenges of trying to get a visa or permanent residency.

“We have never seen such strict border controls but understandably every client has an expectation that their case is compelling. Lawyers need to sit down with their corporate clients and plan ahead, look at workforce planning, be realistic about travel to Australia and the costs of quarantine even if their employees are granted a travel exemption,” he said.

“The danger is to overpromise and underdeliver, which leaves everyone dissatisfied. We all need to be reminded once in a while that this is a global pandemic and Australia’s zero risk approach means the closed (or even slightly ajar) borders are here for the foreseeable future.”

Ms Manera agreed that “constant vigilance” was needed in the current climate. She said that migration lawyers can support their clients and communities “by providing clear and realistic advice, ensuring that the best possible application is provided to the Department of Home Affairs or Administrative Appeals Tribunal, and staying up to date with constantly changing guidelines, policies and laws.”

Furthermore, Mr Taylor said that because often his clients’ “entire livelihoods, and sadly sometimes their lives” depend on his services, constant communication is essential, as is staying on top of current trends.

“Migration lawyers need to stay across the current program and potential future changes. Migration law changes on a weekly or daily basis and it is critical if you are working in this area that you are technically competent,” he said.

“The pace of change is so rapid it takes all your time just to keep up with changes.”

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