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Simon Shaw on Australia’s Employment Scene

Unless your name is Novak Djokovic, free movement to and from – and across – Australia was formally restored to its pre-pandemic parameters earlier this month.

And for those who were denied the opportunity to meet up with family and friends or from scratching a travel itch, you’ll hear few complaints about the return to roaming normality.

Open borders will also undoubtedly prove a much-needed shot in the arm of the national economy, with the allure of Australia’s natural beauty, surf and sand still a major international draw.

Tourist dollars, however, are not a silver bullet to wider woes.

Queues at the Opera House, increased traffic along the Great Ocean Road and a procession of camper vans passing Uluru will not resolve the labour shortage that is constraining companies’ profits and curtailing any meaningful business growth. 

Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals that job vacancies are at a record high, with more than 423,000 posts in need of filling, while the country’s underemployment rate – which refers to people seeking more work – has hit a 14-year low of 5.7 percent.

The long-term answer to this perfect storm lies in immigration, but as an expat Pom living (very happily, I may add) in Perth I worry the recovery in the rate of visa applications will be slow.

When I took the decision to switch hemispheres and relocate my family in 2019, Australia’s “offer” – those unspoken perks above and beyond a job’s pay and pension – served as a homing beacon. 

The lure of the great outdoors, mild winters and warm summers, and much-celebrated quality of life was great, as was the prospect of using Western Australia as a base to explore further far-flung destinations.  

COVID has left significant scarring in this respect and while it may not have eclipsed the beacon, it has certainly caused it to flicker. 

The pandemic, or more precisely the prospect of another such phenomenon, has skewed perspectives. Where once Australia’s global positioning was perceived as a positive, when now viewed through the experience of protracted lockdowns it raises concerns of geographic isolation.

Similarly, the economic uncertainty that continues to ripple around the world in the wake of infections and stay-at-home orders has dampened people’s spirit of adventure – particularly when it comes to career moves. 

Those once considering a change in role have been given reason to question their desire to depart long-held posts. They are rightly asking themselves whether it is better to stick in a job that affords them a reasonable degree of financial security than be the last through the door of another company if there are to be further tough times – and the prospect of redundancies – ahead.

The same is, of course, true for the domestic employment scene; a case of better the employer you know than the one you don’t causing the jobs market to falter.

While a definite catalyst, COVID can’t, however, be credited as the root cause of Australia’s labour shortage.

Even if a reset button could be hit and psychologies rewound to before Wuhan became world-renowned, the immigration process would still – ironically – serve as a barrier to entry for some.

In respect of the field of law, for example, skilled professionals are incredibly hard to come by and “importing” talent from overseas is notoriously difficult.

Despite the strong similarities between the UK and Australia’s legal systems, a veritable expert with years of specialist experience with a wish to trade Birmingham for Bunbury would effectively see their career status revert to that of a newly qualified lawyer. 

And the legal profession is by no means the exception to the rule. As it stands, excellent candidates can’t have their Canberra cake and eat it – it’s a choice of dream destination or dream job rather than a balance of the two.

Borders being open is obviously great, but it’s the walls of bureaucracy that need to come down if businesses are to be given the freedom to bolster their workforces for the benefit of the wider population.

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