We last wrote about Regional Migration Agreements (RMA) in July. Since then staff from the Labour Market Branch have been travelling around the country speaking with representatives of regional areas that may be suitable for a RMA. We wanted to get an idea of people's feelings about the program at a local level. We also organised meetings with representatives from Australian Government agencies, national unions and industry in Canberra and Sydney to brief them on the proposed program and give them the opportunity to provide feedback.
Broadly speaking, we think there are two labour market environments where RMAs can solve labour shortages. The first is regions experiencing critical short–term labour needs or rapid economic growth where local labour shortages are limiting business activity. The development and ongoing operation of the INPEX Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) project in Darwin is an example of this.
The second labor market environment we identified is one where growth is being hampered by short-term inelasticities in labour supply, for example, the strain on industries such as agriculture and manufacturing in the Goldfields-Esperance region of Western Australia, as local workers are attracted to jobs in resources projects in the Pilbara.
With this in mind we travelled to Darwin in the Northern Territory, Broome and Esperance in Western Australia and Gladstone in northern Queensland. Each of these areas is experiencing skills and labour shortages due to labour drain as locals move to nearby construction or resources projects seeking better pay and conditions. What’s left behind are skilled labour shortages that local employers have difficulty filling. In these areas a RMA could be an effective solution to backfill positions and strengthen the local labour market and economy while also encouraging training opportunities and initiatives for locals.
During consultations the main issues we covered were regional eligibility, the skill levels and occupations that will be available, the salary threshold for temporary skilled migrants and the training commitments that will be required.
The strength of the RMA program is its flexibility, which is why we are proposing to steer clear of hard thresholds, such as unemployment or labour force participation rates, to establish regional eligibility for the program. Rather than creating a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model, we propose that eligibility be based on the recommendation and endorsement of the relevant state or territory government. This endorsement will be based on a high level regional scan confirming that labour shortages exist and that attracting and retaining sufficient numbers of Australian workers has not been possible.
Feedback from some stakeholders, such as industry bodies and employers has been very supportive of this flexibility. Others, concerned with preserving job opportunities for Australians, proposed that a RMA be granted only after rigorous analysis to determine that there is a genuine need for overseas workers. This would entail job specific labour market testing and analysis which proves that employers have already made exhaustive attempts to recruit, train and retain local workers.
As mentioned in our previous RMA blog post, one of the major benefits of the RMA program will be that Australian employers will have access to some occupations that are not eligible under the standard program. This reflects a real change in Australia’s skilled migration program from one predominantly targeting highly skilled individuals to creating avenues for semi–skilled migrants.
For industries such as tourism and agriculture, allowing semi–skilled workers is critical as many occupations within these industries are categorised as semi–skilled and are not eligible under the standard 457 visa program.
For example, current data from the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism indicates that in the tourist industry in Broome three of the occupations most in demand now and in the foreseeable future are bar attendants, waiters and café or restaurant managers. Allowing concessions on skill levels may enable tourism employers in Broome to use the program to fill these gaps.
For some stakeholders, especially those representing the tourism and agriculture industries, our proposal to lower the skill level to allow for a broader range of occupations was seen as not going far enough. They called for eligibility for all occupations regardless of skill level if demand and difficulty in employing Australian workers can be evidenced.
In contrast, other stakeholders expressed real concern that lowering the skill threshold would mean that jobs that could and should be done by unskilled or under–skilled Australians would be filled by migrants. Their position is that employers in these regions should be making more effort to recruit and train Australian workers to fill these positions.
We are working hard to finalise the RMA program and plan to release the guidelines in early 2012. Applications from interested regions will be accepted shortly after. In the meantime, let us know what you think. Do you believe RMAs will help to support regional centres and industries? Do you think your region needs a Regional Migration Agreement?