Experts debate Australia's skilled immigration needs

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Australia's immigration system is one of the most successful in the World with over twenty percent of the total population of Australia being born overseas. There have been several new studies looking at the level of skilled immigration needed to maintain economic growth. The Department of Immigration is soliciting views on skilled migration from various interested parties as it prepares its program for the 2005-2006 financial year, and has received a number of conflicting views on the level of immigration required to meet the needs of the Australian economy.

A report published on February 7 by the human resources firm Drake International said that an ageing population, falling fertility rates and current immigration levels could lead to severe labor shortages within the next five years. The average age of the workforce is going up, and it is expected that by 2012 85 percent of all workforce growth will come from persons aged over 45, a massive rise from 32 percent in 1992.

Sectors including automotive trades, education, health, transport and distribution are already short of workers, and if the trend continues the report estimates that Australia's GDP could fall by 1.5 percent over the next 40 years.

But there are divisions over how much of a role immigration should have in easing this crisis. This is especially the case in the information technology sector, globally one of the most dynamic sources of migration.

The Information Technology Contract and Recruitment Association (ITCRA) says the industry is facing a major skills shortage. At a recent meeting with Australia's Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, leaders of this lobby group said the intake of foreign workers should be raised by 10 percent to almost 90,000 per year, and the government should reduce the requirements for foreign IT workers to get Skilled Independent visas.

ITCRA Executive Director Norman Lacy said that a failure to do this would "add to our looming skills shortage, with a negative impact on negative growth."

Mr. Lacy said this was particularly important because of the skills transfers that come with an influx of foreign workers, and to compensate for the estimated one million Australian skilled workers who are abroad - by 2009 the number of Australian professionals on short-term foreign assignments is expected to reach 120,000.

However, research published in December by the Graduate Careers Council of Australia (GCCA) presents quite a different picture. It reported that in December 29.5 percent of computer science graduates were looking for full-time work in their field four months after graduating. This is a much higher rate than for recent graduates from nursing and accounting programs, and that only humanities students had a harder time finding jobs.

Rob Durie, Executive Director of the Australian Information Industry Association, said the current skilled immigration level was "probably about right" and argues that a flexible migration system is needed. He said that after the dotcom crash of 2000 Australian IT professionals' job prospects were affected by high migration levels, and that although there has recently been a rise in demand for IT skills, there is no need yet for an increase in the number of foreign workers.

Others believe that training more local workers is a better way to meet skills needs over the next few years. David Issa, Chief Information Officer with the Insurance Australia Group, said the falling number of students doing tertiary computer science courses needs to be addressed to avert skills shortages in the industry.