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Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Fishing for skills: migration bottleneck boosts 457 visa demand

Published 01 March 2013 12:21, Updated 05 March 2013 22:35

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Fishing for skills: migration bottleneck boosts 457 visa demand

Desperate for skills but unable to bring them in through the skilled migration program set up for that purpose, Australian employers are turning to the 457 temporary migration program – which the government already plans to tighten – to bring people into the country.

Tuna fisherman Hagen Stehr says programs such as the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme that would work for his Port Lincoln-based company, don’t work. Several months ago he was trying to bring in a skipper and seagoing engineers through the scheme, but it went nowhere.

“Once you find them, then it’s near impossible because aquaculture doesn’t fit into the list of qualified people,” he told BRW. “Skilled people are very, very difficult to bring into the country.”

Stehr is now trying again. “We are trying to find the people in Europe and then I want to use the 457 visas to bring them in,” he says.

Companies such as the Stehr Group, which had revenue of about $25 million last year, are already losing skilled workers to the growing offshore oil and gas industry, which pays far higher wages. But regional employers are fighting with one hand tied behind their backs because of what they say is the government’s blind adherence to occupational definitions that don’t recognise the economy’s needs or the skills of the people who possess them.

As a result, they are using the 457 channel to get in workers, but this is at risk of tightening after immigration minister Brendan O’Connor flagged changes to this regime from June, in an effort to curb alleged abuses in industries such as construction. Temporary migration should not be a solution to a flawed skilled migration scheme, but Primary Industries Skills Council of SA executive director Mark Cody says they have no choice.

“If can’t get skilled migrants in, we take them in on as 457 or temporary workers,” he says.

The immigration department estimates the regional program will account for 16,000 places out of a total 129,250 skilled migrant visas granted in FY2013. In the year to June a total 68,310 short stay 457 visas were granted. If employers find they can’t use the regional program and turn to 457 visas instead, their demand could provide a considerable boost for the 457 visas at a time when the government is looking to tighten up on them.

In Stehr’s case, the skilled workers he needs are not recognised by the so-called Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO) codes. The code, which recognises a “master fisher” doesn’t recognise a skipper’s or master ticket qualification, and immigration authorities do not allow these people through the skilled migration channel, Cody says.

“They are using ANZSCO as a bible when they shouldn’t be,” he says. “It’s one of a range of tools [and another one] should be industry advice.”

Resolving the bottleneck is crucial to resolving the looming age-related loss of skills in Australian agriculture, Cody says. The council says that by 2018, an estimated 116,558 workers out of a 2008 workforce of 305,763 in agriculture will be over the age of 65 years. Easing the route for skilled migration is vital.

“There is a fundamental question not being addressed: we need a much greater level of skilled migration in this country aligned with actual industry demand and need to provide for a solid, robust recognition system to make sure we don’t lose those people to lesser-skilled occupations,” he says.

The immigration department says there is flexibility over occupations.

“The labour agreement programs can provide flexibility to businesses seeking overseas labour in occupations that do not fit neatly within the ANZSCO framework,” a spokeswoman said on Friday. “For this to occur the minister would need to be satisfied that a skills shortage exists in the requested occupation and that there are Australians currently employed in this occupation. This would be in addition to the usual labour agreement requirements such as the payment of temporary skilled migration income thresholds, English language proficiency, commitment to training of Australians and qualification and experience benchmarks.”

Even these requirements may continue to be a hurdle for Stehr. One of the categories of skills he desperately needs is net makers, the best of whom come out of the fishing industry in Italy.

“They’ve got to be fishing captains that know something about the tuna industry,” he says. “And guys who can build nets. That in itself is an art – to work with the needle the whole day – which doesn’t exist here in Australia.”

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