An effective temporary skilled migration program isn’t about taking jobs from locals – it’s about stimulating hospitality businesses and creating opportunities for young Australians, says Tourism Accommodation Australia CEO, Carol Giuseppi.
In an ideal world the Australian hospitality industry would attract the majority of its workers from local sources and essentially, ‘grow its own’.
That is certainly the priority of Australian hospitality operators, and many have developed outstanding programs to attract, retain and build the careers of their staff, but the spectacular growth in the Australian hospitality sector in recent years has created a serious shortage of skilled workers to fuel current and future expansion.
This was emphasised in a Deloitte Access Economics report commissioned by Austrade last year, which identified the need for 123,000 new positions in the tourism industry over the next five years, including some 38,000 chefs and cooks.
A recent report in the Daily Telegraph suggested the drought in hospitality workers was because locals aren’t prepared to put in the hard work, but when you have 100 new hotels opening over a period of five years, new convention centres the size and scale of the International Convention Centre in Sydney, and a massive expansion of restaurants, bars and catering services, there was always going to be pressure on the local market to supply the necessary skilled and unskilled labour.
Certainly the industry has realised the challenge and has started introducing additional programs to attract new staff to the industry. A pioneering Hotel Career Expo was held in Sydney in May to put the spotlight on the industry and sell its attractions across a wide range of professions, not just traditional restaurant, bar and catering areas, but associated areas such as engineering, accounting, IT, procurement and sales and marketing, which are necessary for all hospitality businesses.
Additionally, the industry has actively developed programs to match job seekers to hospitality jobs, and introduced specific programs to engage indigenous workers and promote the benefits of mature age workers, but despite some encouraging returns, supply of skilled labour is not keeping up with demand.
Pressures on employment for the hospitality industry are across the board, but it is the regional and remote areas that are particularly struggling to find appropriate staff. This is why Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA) has been advocating so strongly for a more flexible attitude to temporary skilled migration.
There are a number of schemes that allow workers to be brought in from overseas to fill specific gaps in the labour market, the best known being the Temporary Work (Skilled) 457 visa, which allows skilled workers to come to Aust?ralia and work for an approved business for up to four years.
For the hospitality sector, experienced chefs and cooks have been in short supply for well over a decade, so in 2013, TAA made a major submission to then Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, regarding the need for greater flexibility and support in attracting overseas chefs and cooks. As a result of the tourism and hospitality industry’s advocacy, chefs were added to the Skilled Occupation List, making it easier for businesses to attract chefs from overseas.
Unfortunately, while the logic of opening up temporary skilled migration to help fill shortages is obvious to our industry, the issues have become mired in politics, with some interest groups using simplistic arguments about “overseas workers taking away local jobs”, when – particularly in regional and remote areas affected by seasonality – there simply aren’t any skilled local workers to fill the jobs.
Encouragingly, the government announced last year that Working Holiday Maker (WHM) visa holders who secure work in certain high demand industries in northern Australia will now be able to remain with their employer for up to 12 months, compared to the usual limit of six months. Further changes have been introduced that will allow Work and Holiday (Subclass 462) visa holders to extend their stay in Australia by a further 12 months if they work for at least three months in agriculture or tourism in northern Australia.
On the other side of the coin, though, the government’s proposed ‘backpacker tax’ would have the opposite effect on encouraging young visitors to travel to regional and remote areas and work in either skilled or unskilled jobs. A six month suspension of the tax while a review is held is a welcome change of heart by the government and follows strong submissions by TAA on behalf of the industry, but hospitality businesses will need to maintain pressure on MPs after the election to ensure that the tax is either scrapped or significantly ameliorated.
Hopefully after the election, government will be able to review the whole temporary work visa situation in a way to ensure that Australian businesses are supported, rather than disadvantaged, by the system
We have seen positive moves in the past. An independent review into the 457 visa scheme last year agreed with our recommendation that the current Temporary Skilled Migration Income Threshold be retained at $53,900p.a. with no further increases until it is reviewed in two years.
This is particularly important for regional areas because the higher the threshold the less businesses and positions would be eligible to have someone come in on a 457 visa.
We are strongly advocating for special dispensation for regional areas because of their different economic circumstances compared to cities and we are also arguing that concessions should be granted concerning English language requirement for certain occupations, because while English language skills are important, there are some areas in the hospitality industry where English is not such a priority.
The government has said it plans to cut red-tape for visa applications, and review the fee structure, especially for secondary visa applicants and visa renewal applications. Both of these will be increasingly important as new hotels and foodservice businesses open and demand for skilled labour increases.
Other initiatives that we believe will help hospitality and tourism businesses access skilled labour include:
- Increase the maximum age for Working Holiday Visas from 30 years to 35 years in recognition of the changes in traveller demographics that have occurred in recent years;
- Working Holiday Visa holders who meet the criteria for extending their stay by working in a regional area should be able to spend their second six month working stint working in a city-based tourism business;
- Extend the Working Holiday Visa from 12 to 24 months, with a corresponding increase in the working portion of this from six months to 12 months;
- A new two year working visa for temporary workers should be created for industries such as hospitality with genuine short-term labour shortages that cannot be addressed by the domestic workforce or through skilled migration;
- A new graduate visa should be created allowing overseas students to work full-time in Australia for two years after graduating from an Australian tertiary education institution (including hospitality schools);
Our industry needs to encourage excellence to compete successfully, and access to temporary skilled labour can play an important role in raising the standards of Australian tourism and hospitality businesses, while increasing long-term opportunities for local workers.