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To lure talent, Australia must loosen the visa knots

Regulation

Attracting skilled migrants has become crucial to accounting, so the process has to improve.

By Ainslie van Onselen 10 minute read

In Homer’s Odyssey the mythical sirens lived on an island near Scylla and Charybdis where they would await ships and sing their song to bring death upon sailors.

Well, right now that island might well be called Australia as industry sector after industry sector sounds their own siren calls, concurrently lamenting their respective workforce crisis while cannibalising their own and other professions with a range of promises.

In this time of Great Resignation, it is understandably difficult for workers to resist the bewitching song of competitors and without government intervention the situation for business will only become starker.

The accounting profession is one such industry in this predicament.

In July this year CA ANZ surveyed 18 professional services and audit firms, from small to large in size. It revealed an increasingly dire situation around vacancies, recruitment and skilled migration.

There are nearly 1,000 audit job vacancies and nearly 2,000 non-audit/consulting vacancies across the 18 surveyed firms alone.

Significantly, it highlighted that individual firms are losing vast numbers of candidates, some up to 50, pulling out of recruitment processes citing visa delays as a key factor. Some firms reported visa delays of up to six months and longer.

And absurdly it is the highest skilled (and paid) roles that are taking the longest to process. Talent we are desperate for and that we are losing to other, international markets.

These statistics provide a window into just how challenging the talent market is as a result of a tightening skilled migration workforce and an exhausted domestic talent pool.

As the Treasurer and other economic commentators have noted, current inflationary pressures are heavily supply-side driven, yet here we are with process bottlenecks choking the economy.

Talent shortages are leading to a range of impacts including current staff being overworked, an inability to service clients or take on new work, and problems meeting deadlines.

From a macro-economic perspective, the impact is an inability to meet reporting deadlines and as a result, damage to the reputation of capital markets.

Professional services and audit are the glue that hold the economy together. It is the assurance and expertise that ensure our economic system functions and is trusted. Well, that glue is coming unstuck.

In this context the upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit could not be occurring at a more essential time. But it cannot be a talkfest. It needs to deliver immediate, practical policy relief – as well as considerations for longer-term reform.

Greasing the immigration pathways for highly skilled and semi-skilled workers is an essential, early step that can be taken.

There are clear capacity issues that have arisen when it comes to processing visas. And while the Priority Skilled Migration Occupation List (PMSOL) was a fantastic initiative through the pandemic, it was a temporary measure that has grown well beyond its initial purpose.

Understandably, some are saying it is down to firms to do better in attracting and retaining staff.

My answer to that is, they are. But at 3.4 per cent unemployment, where are the people going to come from?

Firms are already increasing pay and making remuneration packages more attractive, upping the ante in workplace policies to develop talent, and are increasingly innovative in creating an engaging workforce culture.

I look forward to attending the Jobs and Skills Summit this week, seeing the initiatives that come out of it and how they will benefit our country as a whole.

The good news is that Australia remains the best place in the world to live, work, play and raise a family.

We can sing our own siren song to the global talent pool, but we can’t afford to sink the aspirations of talented candidates who want to bring their skills to our shores.

Ainslie van Onselen is the chief executive of Chartered Accountants ANZ.

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