Australia’s peak advocacy group for tech professionals, the Australian Computer Society (ACS), has called for the Federal Government to pursue wholesale changes to Australia’s skilled migration program in a bid to fill upwards of 1.2 million technology jobs by 2027.
In its submission in response to the Albanese Government’s A Migration System for Australia’s future review, the ACS flagged the need – at least in the short term – for IT professionals “to remain a high priority for migration inputs”, while also urging for changes to Australia’s migration system to enable the targeting of specific, in-demand skill areas rather than simply “occupations”.
“Australia’s IT sector is particularly dependent on skilled migration,” the ACS said, noting that “some 45 per cent of all IT professionals are migrants”.
It added: “IT touches every business and every industry, is a key enabler of productivity growth, and Australian employers are desperate for skilled professionals to fill in gaps left by a weak domestic pipeline.”
The ACS noted that, for instance, despite being “a slow year in historical terms”, in 2021-22 Software and Applications Programmers and ICT Business and Systems Analyst visas represented the second and fifth most awarded visas by profession in overall numbers, representing 3,297 and 1,429 visas respectively.
While acknowledging that wholesale changes to the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO) – used by the Government to determine prioritisation of occupation-based visas based – were “unlikely”, the ACS called for a more direct say on changes made to the classifications system.
The peak body also called for a trial of “a skills-based selection stream”, which may, it said, “[provide] better outcomes than occupation-based streams”.
“For the longer term we would also recommend examining and trialling skills-based models for selected fields. Such a model would focus on assessing potential migrants against a set of strategic skills rather than strict occupations.”
For instance, it said, a ‘software developer’ might represent hundreds of different skill sets, depending on the programming language, toolsets used and field of speciality (’embedded systems’, for example).
“A skills-based system,” the ACS argued, “de-emphasises ‘work experience’ in favour of capability demonstration.”
Minimum wage restriction not the solution
The ACS was also critical of a proposal to introduce minimum income requirements for migrant workers, noting a “one-size-fits-all wage threshold” – allowing only people with provable high-income potential to qualify for migration to Australia – was problematic for prospective employees in Australia’s tech sector.
Further, outside the tech world, the blanket solution could exclude other in-demand professions that are not typically high paid, including nurses and teachers.
“[A] system allowing business to automatically bring in workers subject to minimum salary levels would not resolve this issue and instead recommends giving priority to the skilled migration stream,” the ACS said.
Citing its own ACS Guide to IT Professions 2022 report, the peak body said, on average, the minimum average advertised salary for technology jobs in 2021 was $107,778, with software developers and cyber security specialists – roles with high demand from employers – the average salary in 2021 was much higher at around $117,000 and $120,000 per annum.
“Strategic needs cannot simply be bucketed into wage brackets,” ACS said in its submission.
“We need workers across the wage spectrum, and ACS cannot see an unproblematic or workable way to use wages as a proxy for strategic need.
“At best such a model would need to have very messy per-occupation thresholds, or alternatively distort the intention of skilled migration to fill strategic gaps in the Australian skills market.”
Employee sponsorship system reform
The ACS also called for minor reform of the employer-sponsored visa system, urging for employee sponsored to visas be prioritised “above other independent visa categories for processing and assessments”.
“Employer sponsorship currently comprises the largest section of the skilled migration stream, with 29.3 per cent of all skilled migration applications coming from employer sponsorships.”
Such visas, it said, were particularly significant in the IT space.
“The most common employer-sponsored profession for migrants by a considerable margin is Software and Applications Programmers, with ICT Business and Systems Analysts also making it into the top five.
“Australian employers are desperate for people in these highly skilled occupations, and they are braving the complex and time-consuming process of employer sponsorship to get them.”
Long visa processing times, upwards of six months, are proving problematic in this stream.
“An employer typically cannot wait for months to onboard a sponsored employee. Even though wait times for processing of employer sponsored visas [are] substantially shorter than independent visas, it is still not uncommon for wait times to exceed six months.”
However, to prevent potential abuse of an expedited employer sponsored visa system – one that could “short-circuit the quality control processes”, with the potential to also undercut wages and increase fraud risks – the ACS called for current controls on employer-sponsored visas to not be watered down but be “maintained or enhanced”.