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12 May, 2008

Aussies Seek to Clear Skilled Migration Visa Backlog

The Australian tourism industry is to be a primary beneficiary of an effort to clear a backlog of applications for temporary skilled migration visas by June 2008.

The move is designed to ease the country’s labour market pressures and skills shortages, specifically in the accommodation, catering and retail sectors, and underwrite the competitiveness of Australian business in a global economy.

The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans announced early last week that he has directed the department to allocate extra resources and work overtime to clear the backlog the so-called “457 visa” applications by June 30 as an immediate measure.

Thereafter, specialised teams or ‘Centres of Excellence’ will be set up in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth to facilitate and process the applications from July onwards.

The move mainly will help the hospitality sector complete the legalities of hiring chefs and cooks, the main area of demand.

The primary visa in this area allows businesses to recruit staff from overseas for periods between three months and four years. Businesses may also sponsor secondary persons to accompany overseas staff to Australia.

In tourism, t he most significant growth in manpower requirement is projected for accommodation, restaurants and cafes, education and retail trade sectors. Other industry sectors facing manpower shortages are infrastructure and mining.

According to a report issued by the minister’s office, as at 13 February 2008 there were 125,390 Subclass 457 visa holders in Australia, comprising 67,410 primary visa holders (nominated skilled workers) and 57,980 secondary visa holders (family members).

The report said that as at 1 April 2008, 39,940 temporary skilled visas have been granted in 2007-08, which on current projections is 17% higher than the previous year when 46,680 such visas were granted.

The policy for expediting the visa processing period emerged in the wake of the National Tourism Industry Strategy Research Report which estimated 536,600 jobs in the Australian tourism industry in 2003-04.

It was considered by an ad hoc body known as the External Reference Group (ERG ), set up by the minister to recommend policy measures to meet Australia’s labour market needs, especially in view of competition it is facing from other labour-hungry countries like Canada and New Zealand.

According to a report issued by the ERG, employment growth in accommodation and cafes and restaurants to 2012-13 is expected to average 1.7% per year, compared to 1.5% for all industries.

The report cited industry studies suggesting an additional tourism sector labour demand of 130,000 persons by 2013-14. Around 36.5% of tourism employment is in regional and rural Australia, and approximately 48,000 additional workers will be required by the industry in regional and rural Australia by 2013-14.

The tourism workforce is young relative to other industry sectors, the report said. More than 35% of the tourism workforce was aged between 15-24, double the all-industry average percentage.

Overall the tourism industry accounted for 10-11% of total national employment in the 15-24 year age group, double its overall share of employment of 5.6%, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) March Quarter 2005.

“The pool of young workers which the tourism industry can draw from in the future is shrinking in relative terms as a result of the ageing of the Australian population,” the report said. “Consequently, the industry will need to refocus its recruitment policies towards different domestic demographic groups, including older people.”

It said casual and part-time employment has increased steadily between 1997-98 and 2003-04.

Around 37% of the tourism workforce was employed on a part-time or casual basis, well above the all-industry average of 29%. Part-time and casual employment is generally high in the hotel, restaurant and catering sectors of the industry.

High staff turnover is also a feature. For example, the report said, just 68% of employees in accommodation, cafes and restaurants had worked in the same job for more than one year in February 2004, below the all-industry average of 80%.

“However, it should be noted that in the current (2008) tight labour market, there are reports indicating that full-time employment is increasing to meet the labour demand and retain existing employees,” the report said.

Based on projected population growth and 2004-05 workforce participation rates, it was anticipated that there would be a shortfall of 90,300 employees by 2013-14, because of the relatively lower population and employment growth projected for younger age groups from which the tourism industry draws heavily as a source of employment.

The Queensland Tourism Industry Council stated that “the available labour pool is shrinking and insufficient to accommodate current demand, let alone any future growth”.

Another key recommendation by the ERG is to establish an accreditation system whereby ‘low risk’ employers with a good track record of compliance with immigration and industrial relations laws can have “457 visa” applications fast-tracked by the department.

The ERG report also stressed the importance of training to alleviate the skills shortages in the medium to long term, while permanent migration is crucial for meeting long term labour market demands.

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