Australia has compared well to other OECD economies in managing the impacts of COVID-19 over the past 2 years, but at a significant cost to its status as a talent hub location

Well before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, the willingness of talent to work abroad had seen a significant decline.

In a global survey of over 200,000 workforce respondents conducted by Boston Consulting Group and The Network released in March 2021, people’s willingness to move to another country for work declined by 13% between 2014 and 2020 (see diagram below).

Percentage of respondents who are already working abroad or are willing to move abroad for work

As the global economy reopens in 2022, talent which repatriated back to their home country to ride out lockdowns will be looking to resume their careers away from home.  Traditionally, the global talent hub powerhouse locations have included London, New York, Singapore, Toronto, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Sydney.

These locations had long established themselves as desirable to career progression and as talent investment hubs for multi-national businesses.  However, the evolving circumstances driven by COVID-19 in a few of the traditional talent hub locations may have adversely impacted their attractiveness to skilled foreign talent.

The 2020 report co-authored by Boston Consulting Group and The Network has disrupted the traditional notion of global talent hubs.  The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally shifted views on desirable work locations, and underscoring the shift in attitudes, the report concluded that two Middle Eastern cities (Dubai and Abu Dhabi) and two Asian cities (Tokyo and Singapore) ranked higher than New York on the list of specific work destinations.

Graph ranked by percentage of respondents who would move to each country for work

The report cited that Asia-Pacific countries, had done a better job of containing the virus, which has helped them move up in the rankings.  Indeed, two Asia-Pacific countries are among the top ten for the first time: Singapore, which has surged ten spots since 2018 to eighth, and New Zealand, which was ranked tenth.

Where people with different backgrounds say they would work

The report concluded that Australia was one of two countries (the other being Japan) which appeared in the previous top 10 rankings in 2018 which have seen the biggest improvement in their top 10 ranking in the 2020 report.  Australia moved 4 places from 7th in 2018 to 3rd in 2020, and Japan moved 4 places from 10th in 2018 to 6th in 2020.

In the twelve months since the report was published, what has changed?

Firstly, Asia is not comparing as favourably to Europe and North America in the “post-COVID lockdown period”.  Ironically the locations which were most impacted by COVID-19 in terms of infections and mortalities have been able to embrace “living with COVID-19” with greater agility.

It’s clear that many countries (including across Asia) are moving to a policy setting of “living with COVID-19” and balancing the needs of their economy whilst protecting the more vulnerable in the population from the impacts of the coronavirus.  Even Australia – with its low levels of COVID-19 deaths – is aggressively moving to revise some of the draconian lockdown measures it had established over the past 2 years.

Australia is not alone in this regard.  Governments worldwide are scrambling to re-open their international borders to kick start their economies following a prolonged period of shutdown.  Key to driving economic growth is the ability for developed economies to attract talent – particularly skills which are in high demand arising from the impact of COVID-19 such as medical and information technology professionals, as well as business executive roles.

To some extent, the Australian Government has recognised that the next war for talent will be unlike any other we have witnessed and has been engaging with the business community during the pandemic to design the new skilled talent immigration program.

To underscore the looming battle to attract skilled talent in short supply, an Australian Government Parliamentary committee released an interim report in March 2021 which recommended exemptions to mandatory labour market testing (job advertisement) for roles to be filled by foreign nationals.

However, tinkering with immigration policy settings alone will likely be insufficient to reposition Australia to its former mantle of one of the most attractive talent hub locations in the world.

The current volatility of the global environment is a tremendous opportunity to reimagine the role immigration plays within business.  Rather than viewing immigration as a compliance driven enabler for business, immigration can become a strategic driver of talent attraction and development.

Now more than ever, businesses want their talent on demand and for the geopolitical uncertainties around moving talent internationally to be navigated with certainty.  This trend is resulting in businesses having a more direct dialogue with government in immigration and workforce policy design and implementation. It is also resulting in business negotiating tailored labour agreements which are more aligned to their workforce and talent requirements, and Governments beginning to recognise the pivotal role played by immigration in attracting and nurturing talent.

Despite the advancements above, immigration will continue to be valued as a compliance offering for the foreseeable future, with businesses expecting visas and work permits to be approved quickly and cost effectively, and for the employee experience to be seamless and positive.


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