The Australian tourism industry will be a primary beneficiary of an effort to clear a backlog of applications for temporary skilled migration visas by next month.
The move is designed to ease the country’s labour market pressures and skills shortages, specifically in the accommodation, catering and retail sectors, and underscore the competitiveness of Australian business in a global economy.
The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Chris Evans, said last week that he had directed the department to allocate extra resources and work overtime to clear the backlog of 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 process the applications from July onward.
The move would 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.
The most significant growth in manpower requirements is projected for the accommodation, restaurants and cafes, education and retail trade sectors. Other sectors facing manpower shortages are infrastructure and mining.
According to a report issued by the minister’s office, as of Feb 13 there were 125,390 Subclass 457 visa holders in Australia, comprising 67,410 primary visa holders (skilled workers) and 57,980 secondary visa holders (family members).
The report said that as of April 1, 39,940 temporary skilled visas had 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 visa processing emerged in the wake of the National Tourism Industry Strategy Research Report, which estimated there were 536,600 jobs in the Australian tourism industry in 2003-04.
In response, the minister set up an External Reference Group (ERG) to recommend policy measures to meet Australia’s labour market needs, especially in view of competition from other labour-hungry countries including 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 additional tourism sector labour demand of 130,000 people by 2013-14. Around 36.5% of tourism employment is in regional and rural Australia, which would need approximately 48,000 additional workers by 2013-14.
The tourism workforce is young relative to other industry sectors, the report said. More than 35% are aged between 15 and 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 the group’s share of overall employment of 5.6%, said the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2005.
“The pool of young workers from which the tourism industry can draw 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 had 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%. 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 as of February 2004, below the 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.
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 good compliance records with immigration and industrial relations laws could have “457 visa” applications fast-tracked.
The report also stressed the importance of training to alleviate skills shortages in the medium to long term, while permanent migration is crucial for meeting long-term labour demand.