COVID-19's Impact on Immigration and Work
Australia will feel the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown measures for years to come. As the economy recovers, there are many challenges and questions to face.
Specific sectors, like hospitality and aviation, may struggle to bounce back. It remains to be seen if the structural changes enforced by lockdown — like remote working or increased automation — will become a permanent fixture.
Many companies rely on skilled overseas workers to meet the needs of an evolving economy. The long term consequences of COVID will be felt by both employers and employees. Current sponsorship arrangements have been thrown into chaos by economic uncertainty, while education has suffered severe disruption, heightening an already existing skills shortage.
What lessons have been learned? Here is a look at some of the critical questions facing employers and skilled overseas workers.
Benefits of Hiring Overseas Skilled Workers
Skilled migrant workers are an essential part of a dynamic economy. Australian schools and universities have seen a decline in STEM uptake over recent decades. The decline in STEM graduates, coupled with an increasingly technical economy, means a skills crisis is looming. Skilled overseas workers not only plug these gaps but, through business ownership and entrepreneurship, are shown to be key job creators and drivers of growth.
Australia’s Business Sponsored Visas
Key to ensuring Australia has the right skills to serve the economy is the business-sponsored visa program. Skill gaps are identified by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment. These skills then become eligible for sponsorship.
Employers must prove that a local candidate could not be found for the sponsored position. Additionally, the program requires employers to contribute to the Skilling Australians Fund. These steps are designed to protect local jobs in the long run.
The Future of Immigration and Work
The effects of the COVID response will cause employers to re-think their current work practices. With the rise of Zoom and remote working, many companies may believe that workers from outside the country can do specific jobs that were previously done on-site. This could result in fewer overseas workers arriving, which would spell disaster for the economy. Australia’s aging population already relies on the tax contributions and job growth provided by skilled overseas workers. Cutting the flow of migrant workers would stifle the growth and job creation required to service current and future pensions and pay for countrywide infrastructure.
Business adjustments may see a change in the occupations eligible for sponsorship. This could leave employers reliant on local workers or pausing expansion plans. The cost of paying quarantined workers and the increased administration fees will have a negative bearing. For many companies, this will make sponsorship less attractive.
Double Edge Sword of Remote Working
Remote working has opened up a possibility that may affect knowledge-based positions. During quarantine, many of these roles were operating well off-site. But employers may see this as evidence that many jobs don’t need to be filled by sponsored or local workers. Instead, employers can outsource them to markets with a lower cost of living.
Additionally, an unintended consequence of the Jobkeeper program has hit the agricultural industry. Manual workers set for rural labour are incentivised to stay in cities by this government subsidy.
Workforce Planning Issues
How the workforce reacts to these changes is hard to predict. Many companies’ plans will be shelved or delayed for the foreseeable future. With tourism not expected to return until at least 2021, two groups of overseas workers are feeling the impact.
Current visa holders
Current visa holders either in Australia or locked out by travel restrictions are affected. These workers are eligible for employment, but find themselves out of work or the recipient of job retention measures. Workers may need to re-apply for their visa. Yet, they may face a situation where their skills are no longer represented on the required list.
Future visa applicants
As the economy recovers, the norms of the past will no longer apply. Quarantine periods, enhanced bureaucracy, and extended travel restrictions make employing overseas workers harder. The recovery program will need careful management. Which skills are in demand will be under review.
Hire Overseas Talent VS Upskill Locally
If hiring overseas workers becomes too complicated, employers may explore upskilling local workers. But, the process of retraining internal workers takes several years, which results in a lag that will hurt productivity.
Slated government infrastructure programs will result in an uptick in the requirement of engineers. Complex projects like these require staff with years of experience and know-how, in addition to training. Upskilling existing workers will not be enough to plug these gaps. To fill these specialist positions, employers will still need to draw from the vast pool of overseas in conjunction with upskilling local staff.
COVID Has Changed The Game
The fallout from COVID should see an increase in training and development. The resourcefulness of mentors and leaders will be crucial. To meet labour demands, leaders will need to find ways to fill roles with current staff. Using technology in smarter ways is another area that could shape the response to these restrictions.
Yet, both of those solutions will need time to bear fruit. During delays, a switch to a more on-demand temporary visa policy may help the economy recover.