The global race for the world’s most talented people is hotting up – particularly in tech amid a spate of cyber attacks – with immigration experts saying Australia needs to rethink its approach.
While Australia has traditionally been considered a popular destination for skilled workers, it is facing increasing competition from countries including the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, which are all adjusting their policies to secure more migrants.
Nathan Sabherwal, responsible for hiring for data engineering and analytics at recruitment agency Randstad Australia in Sydney, said it is difficult to find good talent in the tech industry at the moment.
“In general roles that were paying $800 to $900 [a day] a year-and-a-half ago, for the same skill set, now demands $1,100 to $1,300 a day,” he said.
Mr Sabherwal, who is himself a tech graduate from India, believes one of the reasons for the shortage is due to the lack of skilled migrant workers entering Australia at the moment, compared to prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are still nervous about Australia, we’re not getting the same influx of people that we were getting,” he said.
Since mid-2020, when Australia’s borders re-opened, the country has lost more than 600,000 people, 83 per cent of whom are generally of working age, according to .
Australia relies on migrants to fill many essential positions, with the top occupations for temporary skilled visas granted between July 2022 and September this year being software engineers, ICT business analysts, chefs, resident medical officers and developer programmers.
Technology Council of Australia chief executive officer Kate Pounder said finding tech workers appeared to be a problem for companies around the world, especially in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and an increase in cyber attacks.
She told a CEDA migration conference in Sydney last month that a global executive had identified only two Western countries that had consistently trained a pool of cyber workers – the US and India – but now every Western democracy needed them.
In the tech industry in America, Indian migrants dominate some of the most powerful positions, including the chief executive officer of Alphabet (which owns Google) Pichai Sundararajan, also known as Sundar Pichai, as well as the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, and the CEO of Twitter (until he was fired recently by Elon Musk) Parag Agrawal.
Indian migrants run some of the biggest tech companies in the US, including Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai. Source: Getty / Jerod Harris/Vox Media
“In other countries, they would see Indian skilled migrants in tech as being this enormous opportunity, this really valued person, people who are assuming these leadership roles in global tech companies,” Ms Pounder said.
“So I think the fact that India is on our doorstep, is now the biggest source of international students for us, I just see that as a huge opportunity that Australia can benefit from, and emulate some of those pathways we see in the rest of the world.”
In Australia, more than 11,000 of the temporary skilled workers in the country between July 2022 and September this year were from India – making up 20 per cent of the total program. The second biggest group was the UK with almost 8,000 people (14 per cent) and the Philippines with almost 7,000 people (12 per cent).
New visa pathways
The UK has already recognised the potential of skilled workers from India, with a new specific UK-India Young Professionals Scheme (offering 3,000 visa places annually for 18-to 30-year-old degree-educated Indian nationals to work for up to two years) set to open in early 2023.
Ms Pounder said jobs in the tech industry in Australia had been growing at twice the rate of the economy for over a decade and there was no sign of that trajectory coming to an end.
“We’ve also just vastly failed to train enough Australians for them over time,” she said.
Ms Pounder said around two-thirds of those studying Information and Communications Technology (ICT) degrees in Australia had been international students, and more than half of them left within two years of graduating, in part due to some of their visa requirements, which also made it difficult for them to get internships in Australia.
Around two-thirds of students studying ICT in Australia are international students. Source: SBS News
While the Albanese government has since extended the post-study work rights of international students studying bachelor degrees from two to four years – and even longer for other students – Ms Pounder said it was important applications were confirmed quickly while they were still studying.
She said the lack of migration during the pandemic had shown there was a genuine skills shortage in the tech industry, which meant skilled migration was going to be vital to fill the gap while Australians trained for these roles.
Australia India Institute CEO Lisa Singh said Australia was also forecast to have a shortage of something like 100,000 engineers by 2030, despite the fact that half of the migrant engineers in Australia were actually working outside the industry or unemployed.
She said there needed to be better platforms to help connect the industry to skilled migrants, and for better recognition of their qualifications and skills gained overseas.
“We know that India produces more engineers than any other country in the world,” she said.
We know that India produces more engineers than any other country in the world.
– Lisa Singh, Australia India Institute CEO
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation is also warning of a severe shortage in nursing staff amid mass resignations.
“The number of vacant positions being advertised currently has doubled since this time last year,” ANMF Federal Secretary Annie Butler said in July.
“There’s at least 8,000 across the country, but we know that’s probably an underestimate.”
Canada making ambitious push for migrants
Australia is also facing increased competition from countries including Canada to attract highly skilled migrants.
Canada, which has a population of 38 million, has unveiled an ambitious goal to welcome 465,000 new permanent residents in 2023, 485,000 in 2024, and 500,000 in 2025.
In contrast, the 2022-23 migration program in Australia (with a population of 26 million) aims to provide 195,000 skilled and family visas.
Lisa Lalande is the chief executive officer of Century Initiative, a network of businesses, academics and charities advocating for more ambitious immigration targets in Canada.
“We have hospitals closing their emergency rooms because we don’t have the staff,” Ms Lalande told the CEDA conference.
“We’re feeling this significant pressure right across multiple industries in the country whether it’s mining, manufacturing, accommodation and food services. We have looming shortages in areas like STEM workers.
“If these trends continue, there was a recognition that we will not have the workforce or the tax base to be able to pay or support the high-quality services … that we hold near and dear.”
Ms Lalande believes migration could be key to Canada’s competitive edge and reversing its declining productivity, amid an ageing population.
She said Century Initiative is advocating for an increase in Canada’s population to 100 million by 2100, as a “provocation” because it got people’s attention but also because it evoked a vision of what the country could be in the future in terms of influence, power and prosperity.
US modernising its immigration system
America’s immigration system is notoriously slow but it is trying to change this.
On his first day in the White House in January 2021, US President Joe Biden sent a bill to Congress to clear employment-based visa backlogs, allow the reallocation of unused visas, reduce lengthy wait times, and eliminate the cap that stops immigrants from any single country from making up more than 7 per cent of green cards issued each year.
The bill, which has not yet been passed, also wants to make it easier for graduates of US universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the country and to get rid of unnecessary barriers for those wanting employment-based green cards.
While measures aren’t yet law, the Biden administration has lifted restrictions on the number of visas issued to immigrants.
UK campaigns for world’s brightest minds
As well as offering a new UK-India Young Professionals Scheme, in August the UK government announced certain high-growth businesses will have greater flexibility to attract the world’s top talent through a new scale-up visa.
Highly-skilled individuals who get a scale-up visa will be able to live in the UK for two years without requiring further sponsorship or permission beyond the first six months.
The UK wants to be known as a destination for attracting top talent. Source: Getty / Mike Kemp/In Pictures
Businesses eligible to sponsor people for the visa must have achieved growth of 20 per cent or more in either employment or turnover year-on-year for at least three years, and must have employed a minimum of 10 people at the start of the three years.
It comes after a global campaign launched in 2016 to promote the UK as a study destination for international students, with multi-year work permits available after graduation.
Immigration Minister Andrew Giles has acknowledged the lack of skilled workers is one of the biggest economic challenges facing Australia.
He said the government had .
“No migrant should be ‘permanently temporary’ and this larger program helps to ensure we don’t simply ramp up temporary migration, forcing people to live for years in precious conditions, devoid of any certainty,” Mr Giles told the CEDA conference on migration last month.
The government has also announced 20,000 extra university places in Australia and 180,000 fee-free TAFE places have been brought forward.
As well as extending post-study work rights of international students, the government through the also confirmed an additional year will be available for Indians who graduate with bachelor degrees in STEM and ICT with first class honors.
Immigration Minister Andrew Giles speaks at the CEDA migration conference on 16 November. Source: Supplied / Charis Chang
A review into Australia’s immigration system is also underway, with experts to look at whether it is serving the national interest, with an .
“International mobility is already important for economic activity. For Australia, this importance will continue to grow over time,” Mr Giles said.
“We need a system that attracts and retains talent — a system that is simple, efficient, and complementary to the skills existing in Australia.”
Australia still among most attractive destinations
Studies conducted prior to the pandemic ranked Australia as the top or one of the top destinations for skilled workers.
A study of OECD countries on released in May 2019 found the US was seen as the most attractive destination for skilled workers because of the “quality of opportunities”, income and tax arrangements, good amenities and quality of life. Australia and New Zealand followed closely behind due to their inclusive societies and good future prospects.
But when policies to gain entry to the country were taken into consideration, the US lost its top spot in favour of Australia, which had lower visa refusal rates and less restrictive quotas for highly skilled workers.
If migration policies are taken into account, the top five most attractive OECD countries to highly skilled workers were Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, New Zealand and Canada.
Australia topped the list of the most attractive OECD countries for skilled workers in 2019. Source: SBS News
But the restrictions placed on temporary migrants by the Morrison government during the pandemic, including advising them to return to their home countries, preventing people from leaving or entering Australia, refusing to provide any financial support, and long wait times for visa processing, took a toll on Australia’s reputation.
This is in contrast to Canada, which significantly increased its permanent migration intake during the pandemic, to provide more certainty for temporary migrants already in the country, and to send a strong message to those considering making the move.
China and India trying to lure back talent
Countries including China and India are also increasingly recognising the “brain drain” from their nations and are introducing policies to lure their citizens home after losing many of their best and brightest to overseas universities and work opportunities.
China in particular has been trying to lure its citizens back home after they gain valuable education and work experience overseas.
For example, Wuxi Municipality launched a policy in 2006 to try and recruit overseas entrepreneurs by offering firms a 50 per cent partnership with the city government, providing enticing start-up capital for projects.
Other incentives offered to Chinese entrepreneurs include tax perks such as being exempt from tax for two to three years, free work space offered in “incubators”, and help finding schools for children or jobs for their partners.
The Indian government has also offered financial support for the return of entrepreneurs.
Australia has an ‘opportunity to lead’
Co-chair-elect of immigration firm Fragomen, Lance Kaplan, said there were many ways Australia could make itself more attractive to skilled migrants, including making the assessment around qualifications more transparent, and easier.
Studies have found around , compared to around 7 per cent for those born in Australia.
Mr Kaplan said Australia should “push the limit” on recognising skills in the face of professional organisations that may want to keep control of who they think is qualified enough to be a mechanical engineer for example.
“A country like Canada, they’re going to compete for those same engineers and STEM graduates that Australia is going to compete with,” he said.
Mr Kaplan believes the biggest opportunity to find talent for Australia could actually be within the US immigration system.
“Because the US immigration system is extraordinarily slow, it’s incredibly bureaucratic, albeit it’s making some waves towards getting digitised,” he said.
Mr Kaplan said Fragomen had clients sending more than 1,000 people to the US but processing issues with H-1B visas, which were so bad “they literally call it a lottery”, were a barrier. There were also long waiting times even for those who were successful in getting approved.
He said Australia could provide an alternative place for H-1B candidates to wait while processing of their US visa occurs, and some of these people may even end up wanting to stay in Australia instead of going to America.
“One cannot underestimate the importance and the value of being an alternate place to park those H-1B potential candidates,” he said.
“Australia is an extraordinary place because it’s a destination that many of these highly skilled people want to go to.”
He said the US was an enormous market and the economy was massive but Australia could provide an option that people could access more quickly and where they would be welcomed.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of what I would call the deficiencies in many of the other countries,” he said.
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