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The borders are open, but will key workers still come?

Proud young Australian Asian couple with the flag
Skilled migrant numbers to Australia aren't yet returning to pre-pandemic levels. (Source: Getty) (John Clutterbuck via Getty Images)

With Australia’s borders reopening back in December, the flow of tourists to our shores is already breathing new life into our tourism industry. One of the other benefits of a return to open borders is the opportunity to attract skilled migrants to fill the gaps in our labour force.

Due to the extremely tight local job market, some sectors of the employment market are in need of valuable skills from overseas to bolster their ability to cope with the demand for their services, none more so than the health sector.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics highlighted the extent of the issue at the end of last year, when it’s data for 2020-21 saw net migration to Australia fall for the first time since 1946.

While that was expected given Australia’s strong border policy to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak, it also reveals the extent to which growth in this country has been fuelled by immigration.

So, now skilled migrants are once again able to return, the question many will be asking is, will they still come?

New migrant numbers not spiking as expected

Yahoo Finance Australia spoke with skilled migration expert Lisa Chanesman, founder and CEO of Exclusive Migration, for her insights on this question.

“We have been fortunate that we have seen a constant flow of work in the migration field during COVID, mainly from people already in Australia and applying for permanent residency. However, we haven’t yet seen the spike in applications from overseas migrants that we might have expected once the borders opened,” she said.

It is worth noting that Chanesman’s business only works with the skilled migrant section of the intake and has no involvement with student visas. As a result, they are heavily involved with the recruitment of key staff in many sectors of the employment market.

This makes her observation an interesting one, given the well-publicised demand for workers in several industries, coupled with Australia’s relative desirability as a location to emigrate to.

Chanesman goes on to explain that although Australia is still seen as a ‘desirable destination’ for skilled migrants, the numbers actually applying to come here are still a long way short of pre-pandemic levels.

Businesses ‘desperate’ for overseas workers

While overseas migration may be taking a while to ramp up post COVID, the problem for many industries is that their skills are needed now.

“Our corporate clients – those looking to sponsor workers through a migration process – are increasingly desperate for staff in the health, hospitality and automotive sectors, but aren’t seeing the flow of migrants they need at present,” Chanesman said.

This is becoming a significant challenge for many industries that have traditionally relied on overseas labour.

Although borders are now open again, the pent-up demand for workers that has been building through the pandemic has created a significant shortage of resources in some sectors, and new migrants aren’t returning in sufficient numbers to alleviate it.

Processing times taking ‘far too long'

Another factor that is adding fuel to the debate is the time it is taking to process those applications already in the system.

"It’s frustrating that processing times for skilled migrant applications are far too long. They are still significantly longer than pre-COVID, despite the numbers involved being lower,” Chanesman said.

According to Chanesman, this was initially because many of the resources employed by Federal Government to process these applications were redeployed to work on travel exemptions during the pandemic.

Young stylish woman with bag pack and luggage in the airport
Australia is still waiting for the expected influx of skilled migrants to materialise. (Source: Getty) (Iuliia Bondar via Getty Images)

However, it seems that these resources may not have returned to their substantive roles in sufficient numbers to keep processing times down.

For businesses already hurting from staff shortages, it is yet another obstacle to overcome to secure the employees they need.

With policy makers focusing their response on training and development - the recent budget announcement on apprenticeships being an example - more needs to done to address the immediate skills shortage, in addition to the policies that will impact the issue in the medium term.

Immigration would seem to be the best option, and it’s a message that Chanesman agrees with.

“We can’t see how Australia’s economy will fully recover from the pandemic if we don’t have a return to migration levels seen before COVID,” she said.

As Australia’s job market continues to boom, we would be well served to remember the role that immigration has played in the economic success story of the last few decades.

Having an open border policy again is great news, but enticing the skills we need to grow and prosper is still a work in progress.

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