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Migrants competing with graduates for scarce jobs: demographer

A surplus of skilled migrants is potentially leading to even greater job competition for graduates, a population expert has suggested.

Dr Bob Birrell, the founding director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, and now the President of The Australian Population Research Institute, conducted research into the efficacy of the government’s skilled migration program.

Based on an analysis of visa issue data in the skilled migration program and the 2016 Census, he showed that most recently-arrived migrant professionals are not employed in professional jobs. Of the over 256,500 skilled migrants from non-English-speaking countries aged 25–34, who arrived in Australia from 2008 onward, just 24 per cent are employed as professionals. Therefore, he concluded “the program is not needed. Australia’s employers would hardly notice if it was abolished.”

Mike Cannon-Brookes, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Atlassian, would vehemently disagree. This month, he told a Senate Committee on the Future of Work and Workers that “lack of access to experienced, global talent is the single biggest factor constraining the growth of the technology industry in Australia”.

“Highly skilled, experienced migrants are ‘job multipliers’ for Atlassian – for every one senior person we import, we hire many more around them,” he continued.

Migrants vs graduates?

But Birrell had other arguments up his sleeve, including that according to his analysis, Australia already has an oversupply of engineers, accountants and health professionals – all eligible occupations on the skilled migration list. Additionally, out-of-field graduate employment rates are high and are set to increase further, because of the volume of students currently enrolled within the demand-driven system. Not only could this “produce outcomes that are not too happy for universities”, it also “undermines the government claim that we might need these [migrant] professionals, if not now, then in two to 10 years,” he said.

Universities Australia refutes this claim. For one, it says there is no data to support the assertion that graduates can’t find in-field jobs. In fact, it says that of the 90 per cent that find jobs within a few years of graduating, the majority are in professional or managerial roles.

Tacitly acknowledging this alone doesn’t quite rebut Birrell’s ‘out-of-field’ claim. UA chief executive Belinda Robinson added that not all engineers, for example, wish to find employment in jobs with that label. “Many engineering graduates get snapped up by the finance industry for their strong numeracy and analytical skills. Most people will use their degrees in wide variety of fields over the course of their working lives.”

Are we already skilled enough?

Responding to Birrell’s paper, a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson provided that the skilled migration program delivers scarce skills that “help grow opportunities for Australians”. Birrell believes only the latter part might be true. “From the point of view of the Treasury and the Reserve Bank … population growth is an important driver of economic growth.

“They don’t make a song and dance about it in the public arena … that would be like saying you have to put up with congestion, housing affordability, competition for services in Melbourne and Sydney, where the majority of migrants are.”

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton admitted this much last month. In a speech to parliament, he acknowledged some cities are overcrowded and called for a reduction in migration “where we believe it’s in our national interest”. Though, unlike Birrell, who has attracted controversy for his body of migration-related research, which tends to undermine migration, Dutton stopped short of mentioning the skilled migration program.

As an explanation for labels like ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobe’ that have been hurled his way, Birrell offered that “to some, any criticism of migration is ipso facto immoral”.

“To me, that’s just a smokescreen…,” he reflected. “I’m focusing on the government’s claim about migration contributing scarce skills. [It does] not.”

Yet, in 2011, he told University World News that “it is true that on environmental grounds we [the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University] favour a smaller rather than larger migration programme.”

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