Skilled visa changes likely to restrict labour market and population growth in South Australia

When looking at the long-term settlement patterns of migrants, the reality is they are not choosing regional SA. If we look back to the 1990s (16th of June 1997 to be exact), the then Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, said…


The smaller States have tended to miss out on the benefits of skilled migration because the settlement pattern of migrants has been heavily skewed towards Australia’s largest metropolitan areas.” And, “The Government recognised that measures were needed to ensure that the benefits of skilled migration were felt throughout Australia, not just the major metropolitan areas.”


Fast forward to now and ask yourself what has changed – what role will migration play in supporting the skills and labour deficits of regional business?

The current focus of the Australian Government is on highly skilled migrants; those with a degree, a Masters or PhD, favoured over those who have the skills, experience and qualifications needed in South Australia. This is because the Productivity Commission found that these migrants earn more money and pay more tax, claim fewer benefits and return a greater benefit to the Government. This shift in the skilled migration program occurred in 2017 and ultimately saw the end of the permanent skilled demand driven Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS) program, which was the lifeblood for SSA business and industry to fill skills shortages.

The migration program is being increased from 160,000 to 195,000 visa grants this year to help with current and future workforce needs. With nearly 500,000 job vacancies recorded in May 2022, this will make little difference keeping in mind that the additional 35,000 places includes both the skilled migrants and their families. The last time the migration program increased from 140,000 to 160,000 (a 14% increase), SA’s share of the migration program fell by 18.1%. The program is not structured to support SA business and industry.

The answer for SA would be a skilled migration program that favours demand driven outcomes. Demand driven migration provides a shared benefit. This current favour of a skilled, points tested migration program benefits the visa holder and rewards them with an unrestricted visa which allows them to live and work anywhere and in any occupation or job. The shared benefit of demand driven migration means that an employer sponsors a migrant who works for them, brings their family to live in the local community, eat in local restaurants and shop locally too. Everyone benefits. This reflects a former migration program, many years ago, where migrants were sponsored on a four year temporary visa and continued to work in regional SA with the same employer for a further two years as the holder of a permanent employer sponsored visa. After living somewhere for six years, you are more likely to stay living locally.

The Federal Government and unions are also advocating to move away from temporary visas, with one reason being ‘wide spread’ exploitation of 482 temporary skilled shortage visa holders. This is an expensive visa for employers. There are mandatory responsibilities to meet as well as Skilling Australia Fund Levies, which are significant. Federal Government approval is required for the employer too, ensuring the equivalent Australian wages are paid. Visa applicants must also meet skills and English language tests. Of all of the temporary visas, this is the one that protects the migrant and has checks and measures implemented by the Federal Government. It is also the program that most benefits SA business. Looking at the most recent 482 visa statistics, there were 51,770 primary 482 visa holders in Australia and only 1,310 primary visa holders in SA.

If the Government and others including the Unions were genuinely concerned about exploitation of temporary visa holders, any visa that provides work rights to the visa holder would have the same provisions as which applies to the temporary demand driven 482 visa program. However, rather than looking to improve temporary demand driven migration programs to benefit regional businesses and communities, they weaponise them with higher costs and ongoing fees.

I think we all know what the problems are and what challenges regional South Australia faces in terms of population, aging, fertility and the unmet demand for workers. Training people is of course a high priority, as is the primacy of employing locals first, but what happens when there are more job vacancies than there are people to fill them. Training people today for jobs that are currently vacant does nothing to help those businesses who desperately need workers now, especially if businesses need a mechanic with at least five years of specific experience for example.

Designing a migration program with clear objectives is very simple and easy, it’s a matter of looking at what worked before and what programs work well internationally.  We can look at the Canadian model or even New Zealand for inspiration.  There is a desire in the US to develop a place based regional migration program which they are proposing to call the Heartland visa as the US has the same distribution challenges that we face in regional Australia.

Demand driven, place based regional migration visas that provide a shared benefit are urgently required to assist regional businesses and communities.  If Australia continues to operate the skilled migration program with a focus on highly skilled outcomes, Australia will continue to see the same migration distribution challenges that we have seen for decades.

So what is the solution?

The answer is a new regional provisional demand driven employer sponsored migration visa, where the applicant / visa holder must live and work in a regional area for at least 4 years, 2 years on a provisional visa, 2 years on a permanent visa. The visa program would be open to all ANZSCO skill level 1 (degree) to skill level 4 (cert 2 or 3 qualification). The employer would need to be able to demonstrate a genuine need and how the role fits into the business, the visa holder must demonstrate that they have the skills, qualifications and work experience required to do the job. Most importantly, visa holders would need to make the commitment to live and work in regional SA for at least 4 years on a visa that does not permit the person to live and work in a different occupation or location, but if they wanted to live or work in another location, they would be permitted to do so if they met the requirements for another visa.

This style of program would have the integrity to assist with the regional distribution of migration outcomes and have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to exploitation and modern day slavery.

I hope to see the SA Government taking a strong position with regards to regional migration reform and tackle this with the same rigour as they do when it comes to GST distribution, the electricity market, renewable energy and the Murray River.

Following the Jobs and Skills Summit it has been announced that a review of the migration program be carried out and reported on by the end of February 2023.

Note: these thoughts were shared at the RDSA 2022 Summit – the future of regional housing and workforce. The image for this article is courtesy of RDSA Summit 2022.

Mark Glazbrook, CEO

Mark Glazbrook, CEO

Google Rating
Based on 247 reviews
Scroll to Top