Skilled American workers to fill labour shortages; poll; boat arrival
Monday, 02 April 2012
Joint Press Conference with Senator Chris Evans on US work visa arrangement
Senator Chris Evans: Thanks everyone for coming today. I'm here with US Ambassador Jeff Bleich and my Ministerial colleague Chris Bowen, the Minister for Immigration, to make an announcement regarding streamlining processes to facilitate more skilled United States workers coming to Australia in the next few years to support the skills needs we will have, particularly in the heavy civil engineering areas.
Currently the temporary migration program has attracted reasonable numbers of United States citizens with particular skills, but mainly in the professional areas, and there's been some interest for awhile now among US companies and large Australian employers, in attracting some skilled labour from the United States.
You'd be aware that recently the United States economy has been in a difficult period and there has been reasonable numbers of unemployed in the United States, including in their construction trades areas, and we've been discussing with the Ambassador and American companies for some time whether or not we could do better at attracting some of that labour to meet the emerging skills needs in the Australian economy.
We're talking about temporary skills needs. People would be aware that the large amount of construction occurring in Australia in developing mines, railways and ports, which is putting a huge demand on our existing civil engineering workforce.
The reality is projections have our workforce going from about 30 or 35 000 currently to perhaps 75 000 or more workers required in those fields.
There's going to be a spike in our civil construction workforce that we're going to have to meet. We're obviously very committed to training more Australians as the first response and we've invested heavily in training and giving opportunities to Australians to pick up skills. They include not only the traditional training methods, but the National Workforce Development Fund, providing support for mature age apprentices, a whole range of measures designed to meet those skills needs.
But the reality is we will have a peak in the workforce demands. Quite frankly you wouldn't want to train for the peak because that will just leave you with people who will be unable to find work when the peak subsided. So the Minister for Immigration and I have been working on plans to try and allow us to meet the skills needs of the Australian economy during that peak period.
One of the things we've found is that we haven't been attracting trades from the United States of America because of a range of barriers, if you like, to successfully bring those people in to meet those temporary skills needs and two of the measures we are announcing today will facilitate and improve the flow. The first thing is that, under my portfolio, we will be ensuring that tradespeople in America can get their trades recognised there so that when they come to Australia, or supported by an employer, they know they'll be able to work in that trade in Australia. We haven't had strong recognition arrangements with the United States of America and this will allow us to have American tradespeople have their trades recognised there before seeking to come to Australia.
This will mean an employer will know if they seek to bring someone in that they have the trades skills that are recognised in Australia, particularly important for trades like plumbers and electricians where they will need to be licensed. Currently they would have to come to Australia, not sure if they would get that licence and it may take some months to get that licence awarded to them so these changes will allow for recognition in the United States which will provide confidence for the employer and the worker that they will be able to bring them in temporality for employment.
Minister Bowen also has a measure relating to Skills Fairs and attracting labour from the United States and I'll get him to talk to you about that and I'll ask the US Ambassador to make some remarks about his government's view of these measures.
Can I just say though, this is very much about a temporary migration measure to meet skill shortages that we know will be particularly in the civil engineering area. We know there are good quality tradespeople in the United States which we haven't attracted before. The American contribution to temporary migration is growing, but largely in the professional areas, and this is an attempt to make sure we can source some of those high quality, skilled tradespeople to assist us in that peak period, which is likely to come to a head about year 2014-15.
I'll hand over to Minister Bowen.
Minister Chris Bowen: Thank you very much Chris. Well of course, as you know, in Australia we have no trouble attracting skilled migrants. The real challenge is ensuring we attract the skills needed in Australia with our booming economy. Now of course, there are economies in countries around the world which are facing very difficult, and different, circumstances to ours and what's appropriate is that we work together with those countries to ensure that skilled workers who are looking for work have the capacity to fill some of those gaps that we are facing in Australia.
In addition to the measures announced by Minister Evans today, my department will be running, for the first time, a skills expo in the United States. These are successful events that we've held in Europe, most particularly in Greece and Ireland, where we ensure that employers who are looking for workers, particularly as Minister Evans said, temporary workers, are put in touch with those skilled workers who are very interested in exploring the opportunity of coming and working in Australia.
Because we are particularly focusing on the resources sector and resources employment, the first skills expo will be held in Houston on the 19th and 20th of May.
These are, as I say, good opportunities for us to explain the various mechanisms for skilled migration to Australia.
The three clear mechanisms – independent skilled migration where people have the appropriate number of points and are able to have independent migration to Australia, employer nominated migration, where an employer has a vacancy and nominates a particular individual to fill it, and of course 457s.
Now the United States is already our third largest source of 457 migration to Australia but we need to make sure that every opportunity is taken up. So this is a modest step but nevertheless I think a necessary step and one that works in the best interest of the United States and Australia.
The biggest risk to some of our resources projects being completed in Australia is actually getting the necessary skills, the highly specialised skills in many cases, which go to the construction of large resources projects and of course, that has flow on effects throughout the construction sector, to ensure that we have the right mix of skills available.
This is actually a measure to create Australian jobs. When you have economic activity, when you have such big projects being undertaken, it is vital that we have the access to the labour necessary to ensure that those projects proceed and to ensure that jobs are created, in the best interest of the Australian economy, Australian workers and of course in the best interest of those that come and work here and create wealth while they're here.
Ambassador Jeff Bleich: Well first I'd like to thank Minister Evans and Minister Bowen for their leadership on this important initiative. This is a real win-win for both of our nations. It matches highly skilled American workers who are available with a temporary skills shortage here in Australia to make sure that the progress, and growth, and economic vitality continues, particularly in Western Australia and in other parts of Australia, and at the same time we take advantage of these highly skilled American workers who are looking to contribute.
One of the great things about US migration here is, as Minister Bowen said, they're mostly 457 visas so we're talking about people who speak the same language, come fully skilled and then leave, so no job will be taken away from Australians, and in fact that's the goal here – to create prosperity that will employ more Australians down the road. The evidence of how strongly supported this is, not only in the US but also in Australia, is that we have endorsements from the Business Council of Australia, the Australia Industries Group, the American Chamber and the US Chamber of Commerce. This will create an opportunity for labour unions and trades to exchange skills and to build upon an already strong relationship.
I think finally I'd like to mention that there is an opportunity here as well for highly skilled veterans to pursue opportunities to work with Australian companies in the coming months. We have a GI bill which provides for training so that no one would arrive here who isn't already fully skilled and we also have people who have worked in arduous circumstances, away from home and in difficult environments away from their family and so they are fully prepared to go out to the Pilbara and up to Karratha and some of the more remote regions where these jobs are mostly in demand.
So again, on behalf of the United States, I'd want to thank the Australian Government for its leadership on this initiative and we think it's going to benefit both of our countries and long term, the economic growth of Australia.
Reporter: Minister Bowen or Evans, how many skilled American workers are you looking to attract to Australia under these measures?
Minister Bowen: Well the market will determine that, supply and demand will determine that. It's important that we as a government provide maximum opportunities for employers who need workers and for employees who are interested. So we are not setting a target, or a cap, or a limit; we are simply making the connections. Now, I expect demand and interest to be strong in the United States, as it has been in Europe, a lot of interest in coming and working in Australia,
but, as I say, the important thing is the fit – making sure the that people who we bring to Australia actually fit the skills required in Australia. That's the challenge, not attracting actual individuals, making sure that the skills that they possess are the
ones that we need, but I do expect strong demand.
Reporter: Minister, Australia was at the wrong end of the'brain drain' for a couple of decades, possibly longer. Now that a lot of the western world is in the slump of economic misfortune, wouldn't it be the best time to actually correct that 'brain drain' that went for decades and actually encourage these people to stay in Australia?
Minister Bowen: Well again, that will be up to the individuals and their employers to determine. We have temporary skills needs in Australia. We also find that when people come to Australia, work in Australia, like it here and their employer is happy with them, then there is an opportunity for them to apply for permanent migration. That's a very common feature, but of course that has to be a win-win; it has to be good for the individual and good for the employer and, therefore, good for the economy.
Reporter: But we heard from the Ambassador that there is sensitivity about foreigners, like the Irish and Americans, taking Australian jobs, but if they are going to be better for the economy, how can you assure these people that there will be an opportunity to stay?
Minister Bowen: Well because if they are able to stay, ie there's a vacancy for them, their employer is happy with them and it's not a position that's able to be filled by domestic Australian labour, then they can apply through our normal permanent migration scheme, most particularly through the employer nominated permanent migration scheme and you do find a lot of our permanent migration is based on exactly that experience – people try it out, they find they like it in Australia and their employer is very happy with their work, and that's an opportunity for them.
Minister Evans: Can I just make a point on there though in answer to your question, we're particularly focussed on civil and heavy engineering trades. What we've got is a peak of activity in building mines, ports, rail. If we were actually to train to the peak, we'd end up with an unemployment problem as we come down the other side of the peak, so this is very much about trying to meet the demand of the market for a temporary increase. The overall activity has increased, we are training more Australians in the construction trades and heavy engineering trades, but it is also the reality that if we train too many, we'll then be left with a problem at the end of it.
This is about trying to manage, in a national economy, the balance between training and giving Australians the first opportunity, and managing that peak that we know is occurring particularly in the resources area. So we think the American skill base, similar occupation and health and safety standards, English language, all of those things, make for a good fit so we're going to encourage that.
As you know we are getting record numbers from Ireland at the moment for much the same reasons. Their economy has been suffering; a large number of tradespeople are looking for work. So if you wander around Perth at the moment you run into a lot of Irish accents but they are all finding jobs quickly and meeting skills needs so it's a good match. Now, most of those Irish will go home when the economy picks up and maybe the jobs dry up a little bit in Australia, but the good ones who want to stay will be able to apply for permanent migration.
Reporter: Minister Evans, how do the wages compare in these industries between US and Australia and can I ask the Ambassador, do you know what the unemployment rate is in these industries in the US?
Ambassador: Well, the overall unemployment rate in the United States if 8.3 per cent, trending towards 8.2 and there has been a steady decrease in unemployment over the last 22 months and so it's moving in a positive direction. Nevertheless there are still terrifically well skilled workers, particularly in the construction industry, who are looking for work in the United States and so, again, it is the perfect fit here, people speaking the same language, mostly, and with skills.
Ambassador: My guess is that there are probably a higher number in those industries, in construction industries.
Ambassador: Again, you're talking about some very specialised, highly skilled work here. Particularly the type of plumbing, electrician and other work that would be required here for these large LNG facilities and others would be somewhat different from the traditional housing market. So I think you may be comparing some apples and oranges in terms of what they've traditionally been paid. But they do know this work and again, in order to be eligible to come out here they would be pre-assessed back in the States by Australia to make sure that they have the proper skills.
Minister Evans: I suppose the key point to make is that workers coming into the resources industry in Australia at the moment will be among the best paid workers in the world. The reality is there's strong demand and therefore labour is getting rewarded well. So I don't think attracting people because of the wages will be an issue for us. I think there will be issues about people wanting to travel this far, about working away from home, as we know a lot of Australian workers don't want to do the fly-in, fly-out conditions. That's a personal decision people have to take.
But I think the wages and conditions will be attractive and I think these workers will be attractive to both American employers working in Australia and to Australian employers because they've had similar training, experience in heavy industrial situations, occupational health and safety training, common language and, as I say, under this initiative, they will be assessed in the United States of America to make sure they meet Australian trade standards so people will know when they bring somebody across they can go straight into a working environment.
Reporter: Minister, I'm told Colin Barnett tried to set up an agreement with the Irish Government and the Federal Government didn't support it. I'm just interested in how this one's different and if you're working on agreements with other countries?
Minister Evans: Well, look, I'll let Minister Bowen answer that, but quite frankly that's just not true. It's factually wrong and if you look at the figures for Irish migration to Australia, temporary migration, skilled migration – I'll let Minister Bowen take you through that – but the reality is there is strong migration to Western Australia, strong encouragement from the Federal Government and the state government wandering around making up figures of'We need 150,000 people tomorrow, all out of Ireland, can you agree to it?' is quite frankly a nonsense. We're seeing strong growth, the current system is delivering, but I'm straying into Minister Bowen's area so he can deal with that.
Minister Bowen: Not at all, not at all.
Minister Evans: Just as a West Australian, I felt tempted to respond to nonsense.
Minister Bowen: But you're right on the money, you're right on the money. That suggestion is just completely incorrect. Now, can I just say something about Perth. Obviously, we do recognise very much the skills needs and labour shortages in Perth. Hence last year we designated Perth as a regional city for the purposes of the Regional Skilled Migration Scheme. Hence we've worked very closely to ensure with businesses in Perth, obviously a large bulk of our growth in 457 visas goes to Western Australia as it does to Queensland.
Now, in relation to the West Australian Government, they are perfectly entitled to do their job. If they want to go to Ireland and suggest a Memorandum of Understanding with Ireland, that's a matter for them. If that then falls down because the Irish Government says no and they haven't consulted with the Federal Government about that MoU, that is also a matter for them. That is entirely a matter for them.
Now, we have a very good relationship with the Irish Government. I met with the Irish Ambassador and the visiting Irish Minister just last week to discuss this issue. And I would note that for the first time since the 1970s, Ireland is now in our top 10 source countries for permanent migration to Australia. So that shows that the system is working.
Now, the West Australian Government really needs to check its facts and not make allegations which aren't backed up by the facts in skilled migration.
How about we go to Paul and then back over here, because you had a go.
Reporter: Ambassador, just on the degree of difficulty working in the two countries, the United States and Australia, do you think it's tougher to be a government leader as an Afro-American than as a childless atheist in Australia?
Ambassador: I don't make those sort of comparisons. It sounds like, you know, the rock is as heavy as the rope is long. So I'd just leave it at that.
Reporter: Minister Bowen, your colleague Robert McClelland said this morning in response to Labor's dire poll numbers that the carbon tax [inaudible] had affected Labor's sense of legitimacy [inaudible]. Did he have a point?
Minister Bowen: Look, I'm simply going to say obviously that comment is in reference to polls. Obviously, we have a challenge to communicate. Every single Minister and every Member of Parliament, I'm sure, will be putting every ounce of energy we have to communicate that message because the challenge and the decision facing the Australian people in about 18 months time is a very real one with a very stark difference of approach between us and the alternative government.
Reporter: Minister, do you think that poll would be as bad if Kevin Rudd won the leadership?
Minister Bowen: That matter was resolved in March and of course we're all working to ensure the re-election of a Labor Government.
Reporter: Minister, on this announcement, why not try this option to be open to all other countries and aren't you concerned about whether this is going to be seen, particularly in Australia's regions, as discriminatory? Because given that you have spoken, quite rightly, to –
Minister Evans: Look, perhaps I could deal with that. I mean, what these measures do is try to remove some barriers – artificial barriers – to people recruiting US workers with these particular skills. The reality is we already have in place these sorts of arrangements in places like the Philippines and India and a range of other countries.
Effectively, those measures were first implemented as a sort of risk management technique when employers were complaining that perhaps we had people arriving who didn't have the skill set that was required. So we put in place these overseas assessments to make sure that when an employer brought someone into Australia they were confident they had the skills.
Now, traditionally, say with the UK market, Australian employers have a pretty good understanding of the skill set, the training, etcetera, but in newer markets they didn't have the same understanding. Well, in the United States we didn't have those measures in place; we haven't traditionally drawn a lot of tradespeople from the United States. This measure is allowing that facilitation.
We don't discriminate on the basis of race. We do have language standards as a very important occupational health and safety measure to ensure that people can understand communication; these are heavy duty sites with large risks associated with them so we have insisted on reasonable English standards.
But as you know, we have workers from all over the world working in these industries. So it has nothing to do with discrimination, it's about removing a couple of barriers to facilitation of temporary trades labour from the United States, and as I say, currently people when they seek to get a licence in Australia might arrive, might not be successful in getting the licence and they would be disappointed and wasted investment, and secondly, might have to wait months for that licence to come through so this allows facilitation. But the immigration system remains totally non- discriminatory, as it has been for many years.
Reporter: Will any priority be given to appropriately skilled US applicants over people from other countries with equivalent skills?
Minister Evans: Well, this is effectively the decision for the employer. The 457 system, which we anticipate to be the major source of this temporary labour, has a requirement for employers to nominate those persons, so the employers search the world for the appropriate skills and they make the decisions about where they bring those workers from.
This allows us to remove a barrier to them recruiting United States labour. It is something that US companies has supported and some Australian companies have supported, because they think there's a pool of workers there they could use. But equally, those companies can bring workers from Britain, India, China, wherever they choose to sponsor those workers from, provided they meet to Minister Bowen's requirements and they've got the trades qualifications.
Reporter: Minister Bowen, do these visas have a time limit? Are they six months, 12 months?
Minister Bowen: Sorry, just Karen and then back to The West. In relation to 457s, yes they are time limited, but that varies from employer to employer and the department will approve, say, one year or up to four years.
Reporter: And like [inaudible] number. You say the market will drive it but how many people? Hundreds? Thousands?
Minister Bowen: Well, the 457 program is responsive to demand. The limit is not set by me sitting in my office in Canberra, it is set by the economy. We currently have around 80 000 457 workers in Australia, across the board, from around the world. Obviously, the numbers that come out of this program will depend on the interest of Australian employers and the skill set available and the interest in the United States.
Reporter: Can I ask the Ambassador what he'd say to Americans seeking to come and work in the north-west of WA? It is obviously hot, unpleasant sometimes, a long way from the US; how would you sell it?
Minister Bowen: He's hard on the west [laughs] very hard on the west.
Ambassador: I've been out to Karratha 14 times now, I've been out to the Pilbara, I've been out to WA, it is beautiful country over there and we have a lot of American workers already there. I think the physical amenities are terrific: beautiful ocean, plenty of land and really wonderful people to work with so I don't think that this will be a tough sell in that sense.
I think for people who are looking to settle in Perth, one of the challenges will be housing and we're trying to work with companies to make sure that there is access to that, but these are high-class problems to have. It is a wonderful place to work and I think Americans will be excited about the opportunity to proceed careers for some temporary period of time out here in Australia.
Reporter: Minister Bowen, any comment on the latest boat arrival?
Minister Bowen: Well, yes, we have had a boat arrival. This is the 13th boat arrival since the Opposition indicated that it would not support the legislation to allow for offshore processing and for the government of the day to be able to implement its policies. Now, very clearly it is important for the government of the day to be able to implement its policy to have a deterrent to the dangerous boat journey to Australia. Now, the Opposition wants to have it both ways: they want to stop the government being able to have that deterrent in place and then they want to complain that boats continue to arrive. Mr Abbott can't have it both ways. Either he supports offshore processing or he does not, and if he supports it he should vote for it.
REORTER: And on Paul Bongiorno's question, Ministers, do you agree that Julia Gillard does have a tough job to do as an unmarried atheist female Prime Minister?
Minister Evans: I think that was a comment made in jest and I think Julia Gillard has a tough job, but the tough job is managing the economy, managing the growth in the Australian economy while there's structural adjustment occurring and ensuring that we continue to give Australians the best opportunities in terms of education and health and employment, and I think that's what she's focused on. But a little light humour, I think, was used to compare her challenges with those of President Obama.
Reporter: Can I ask about Gina Rinehart, what discussions you've had with her or her company with regards to bringing out workers [inaudible] and what her demands have been and what your response has been?
Minister Bowen: I'll answer that question in the general. Of course, I've announced Enterprise Migration Agreements would be the main mechanism for ensuring that the very large resources projects with capital expenditure of more than
$2 billion and more than 1500 employees at peak have the opportunity to attract the necessary skilled labour. Now, they will apply across the board for those very large projects. I'm not going to get into which projects are at which stage of negotiation and the details of those discussions. When we've signed one, I'll announce it.
Reporter: But discussions about paying migrant workers less [inaudible]?
Minister Bowen: The requirements of the Enterprise Migration Agreements are very clear in relation to the compliance with Australian industrial conditions and they've all been publicised and they'll be met.
See: Index of Speeches
Last update: Monday, 02 April 2012 at 17:41 AEST