Australia needs workers, but a million are stuck at the door

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SYDNEY, Sept 1 (Reuters) – Reductions in visa processing times in Australia have left about one million would-be workers in limbo, exacerbating an acute staff shortage that has crippled business and dampened economic sentiment.

Two years of tight border controls and an exodus of holiday workers and foreign students have left corporate Australia scrambling to fill jobs and keep businesses afloat.

However, the seemingly simple solution to the problem of letting more migrants in has hit a snag due to a backlog of more than 914,000 applications for permanent and temporary visas as of Aug. 12, according to immigration data available to Reuters.

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Of these, around 370,000 are visas for key temporary categories of visitors, students and skilled visas, which are key to the country’s economic recovery. It also includes applicants who are already in Australia and want to change their visa status to a more permanent one.

The delays are largely due to under-resourced immigration and a huge backlog of applications that have been left unattended for two years as the pandemic forced the government to close borders.

The shrinking Australian workforce comes as competition for skilled labor intensifies around the world, particularly in industries where the COVID-19 pandemic has forced employers to cut jobs or force staff to work remotely.

Industrialized nations such as the United States and others in the EU and Asia are seeking to loosen immigration rules and improve offerings to attract top talent. New Zealand also makes temporary changes to immigration rules to fill labor shortages read more

The new Australian government, led by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, is bringing politicians, business, unions and others together to discuss the issue at a national jobs and skills summit this week.

“The Government recognizes the importance of immigration and visitors in addressing current labor shortages and stimulating economic activity,” a Home Office spokesman told Reuters.

“We are committed to reducing manual visa applications to pre-Covid-19 levels and have stepped up our operations to speed up processing times,” the spokesperson added.

Since May, the department has hired more than 180 new visa processing staff to deal with the huge backlog. In the past two months, it has managed to process nearly 1.14 million applications from people who are outside Australia.

But with more than 600,000 temporary visa holders having left the country since the pandemic, much more needs to be done to fill major gaps in the healthcare, construction and hospitality industries.

Albanese’s government blamed the previous administration for the delays.

“The previous government devalued immigration, with the backlog of visa applications increasing to nearly 1,000,000 during their watch,” Immigration Minister Andrew Giles said in a statement in July.

For the first time ever, there are more jobs than job seekers in the Australian labor market, according to the latest government figures. Wage growth rose at the fastest pace in nearly eight years in the second quarter, and the unemployment rate hit a new 48-year low in July. Read more

FINAL MEASURES

Meanwhile, the wait for those wanting to get to Australia is unbearably long. Migration agents who spoke to Reuters complained that waiting periods for various types of visas can reach six months or more.

Australian companies facing losses and in some cases closure are resorting to desperate measures to attract and retain talent.

A cafe in Sydney has hired an electronic billboard on a major thoroughfare to advertise its vacancy.

“No overnight stays. No weekends,” read the chef ad.

“There are 300 vacancies for similar positions in our local trade area alone,” said Christy Bannister, who runs Bay Ten Espresso.

“The investment was higher than we would normally spend, but we felt we had no choice but to try an unusual measure in extreme circumstances,” Bannister said.

Eventually, the cafe was able to hire a chef who found out about the position through the billboard.

Coal miner Whitehaven Coal ( WHC.AX ) said last week it would build its own housing estates in remote areas to attract talent to sites not close to suitable housing.

“I don’t see any weakening. If anything, it continues to tighten,” Whitehaven managing director Paul Flynn said of the skills shortage at a media briefing.

“We have the added dimension of being seen as aloof by some people and when there are competitive opportunities in cities then we have to do something a little bit different,” he said.

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Reporting by Praveen Menon and Sam Holmes; editing by Kim Coghill

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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