Engineers Australia is calling for an overhaul of Australia’s skilled migration program in order to safeguard the nation’s engineering capability.
Almost 60 per cent of engineers in the Australian work force were born overseas, according to the 2016 census. But while the demand for engineers is high, Engineers Australia CEO Dr Bronwyn Evans said the current skilled migration system is no longer working.
“There is a serious mismatch between the objectives of the skilled migration program and what is being achieved in the community,” she said.
“Unless research is done and changes are made, we will continue to fail both migrants and employers, and put Australia’s engineering capability and future economic growth at risk.”
This was the warning issued by Engineers Australia in a recent submission to the Skilled Migration Inquiry being run by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration.
Engineers Australia provided a number of recommendations to address the issues, including refining the migration program’s objectives to be more specific and to consider if the program is designed to attract the right people.
“We desperately need skilled migration to fill the gap between the number of engineers required and what universities and the local market can supply,” Evans said.
“Yet once here, overseas-born engineers experience higher unemployment (7.6 per cent) than their Australian-born peers (3.7 per cent) and only 40.9 per cent end up working in an engineering role.”
One cause for concern is that engineers migrating on certain visa classes are required to live in regional Australia for two to four years, but the bulk of engineering roles are in cities.
“With fewer suitable roles available, migrants can find themselves forced to take on employment out of their engineering occupation and may be lost to the profession forever,” Evans said.
Continuing the large-scale intake of qualified migrant engineers would not contribute effectively to the country’s engineering capability and economic growth unless changes were made to the skilled migration program, Evans added.
In its submission, Engineers Australia called on the government to establish an inquiry to investigate the barriers keeping migrant engineers from working in the profession.
Engineers Australia’s General Manager for Policy and Advocacy, Jonathan Russell, said this inquiry was essential for breaking down the barriers that prevent skilled migrants (in engineering and other professions) from making a full contribution within industry.
Russell said the submission highlights “really stark statistics” about the employment of migrant engineers. These fall into two groups: unemployment, in any job, including non-engineering roles, and the rates of employment in engineering roles. On average, migrant engineers fare worse on both counts, with the exception of those from the UK and South Africa.
For example, the overall unemployment figure for overseas-born engineers can be broken down to 6.9 per cent for men and 11.3 per cent for women. This is much higher than the unemployment rate for Australian-born engineers: 3.7 per cent for men and 3.8 per cent for women.
Unemployment rates also vary significantly based on engineers’ country of origin, and where they settled in Australia. For instance, Iranian engineers experienced 14.4 per cent unemployment, while the rate for English and South African migrant engineers was 4.7 per cent.
For those who were employed, migrant engineers were much less likely than Australian-born engineers to work in engineering roles, except for those from England and South Africa.
“The concern is that migrant engineers are arriving in Australia to meet a policy objective of enhancing domestic engineering capability, but we are only making effective use of 40.9 per cent of them (that being the proportion who work in engineering roles),” according to Engineers Australia’s submission.
The lowest rates for migrant engineers working in the profession were 34.1 per cent and 34.4 per cent for those who migrated from the Philippines and China, respectively. The highest were 62.6 per cent for English migrants and 67.9 from South Africa. (For comparison, the percentage of Australian-born engineers employed in the profession was 56.3 per cent.)
While these figures are based on the 2016 census, Russell explained the submission focused on the importance of overall trends in the employment of migrant engineers.
Compounding the problem is that the skills lists for migrants are based on occupation classifications that typically apply to traditional engineering disciplines and roles. But engineering is an evolving profession, and if Australia is to attract migrants with skills in emerging industries and fields of practice, the skills list must be amenable to change.
This includes the points-based system for ranking applicants, which can have the unintended consequence of skewing supply towards those with relatively low levels of work experience.
Understanding the barriers
The submission raised “uncomfortable facts” about the employment of overseas engineers, Russell said. But is there not much evidence to pinpoint why migrant engineers are experiencing such high unemployment rates compared to Australian-born engineers.
To help find solutions to the barriers migrant engineers face, Engineers Australia has embarked on a research project to collect data, which will involve interviewing migrant engineers and employers.
According to research from University of Technology Sydney, the top three potential barriers are: lack of local experience, references, and not holding a permanent visa or citizenship. This study suggested solutions such as providing internship and mentorship opportunities for migrant engineers, as well as upskilling or reskilling.
No one sector can solve this
Russell emphasised the need for government, industry and academia to support Engineers Australia’s efforts to identify and address the barriers to employment of migrant engineers in the profession.
“No one sector of society can solve this, we have to do it together,” he said.
Russell expects Engineers Australia to give more evidence of the need to overhaul skilled migration for the profession at a hearing in the middle of the year.
“It’s important that the people who create policy hear from Engineers Australia about how important skilled migration is, and how we can make it better for everybody,” he said, adding that the lessons learned from studying the experience of migrant engineers may help improve outcomes for other priority professions.
To read Engineers Australia’s submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, click here.