What can we expect to see in Australia’s present and future, when it comes to businesses bringing in foreign talent?

By all accounts, we are in the midst of a war for tech talent as Governments compete to rebuild their economies with a key focus on certain tech industries.  Australia is no different – as the last 2 years have seen a series of Government directives targeted at technology and its role in economic development and job creation.  Clearly, we are witnessing a transformational shift in how we work, with the impact of the last decade due to globalisation, emerging markets and talent scarcity, invariably shaping the future of work.

Despite this, Australia continues to battle the pandemic and the Australian Government is constantly updating its policy and directives in response to COVID-19, which includes closure of international and domestic borders, COVID-19 vaccination roll-out, quarantine and new immigration programs.

Herein lies the challenge for 2021 and beyond – responding to COVID-19 whilst simultaneously addressing the talent scarcity and competition in global markets!

In response to the former, the Australian Government is implementing its first phase of COVID vaccination to priority groups such as front-line health care workers, border workers, and aged care and disability care staff and residents in the coming months and this will eventually roll out to the remaining of the Australian public in the next 12 to 24 months.  Despite the implementation of the COVID-19 vaccine, the Government will continue to take a conservative approach and ensure all travelers demonstrate negative COVID-19 test results at check-in, and a mandatory 14-day quarantine at entry into Australia.  We believe this will continue until the pandemic is controlled globally – this could mean another 12 months.

That said, we do expect to see a softening of the border restrictions as rebuilding the immigration program becomes vital to support the economic recovery efforts particularly as the Government schemes (Jobkeeper) finish up in March this year.  To support the recovery of our economy, the Australian Government intends to increase visa places for business, investment, and the innovation program, with a particular aim to attract international and outstanding talents to Australia.

How will border closure impact the hiring of foreign talent for businesses in Australia?

Australia’s borders are currently closed to all persons who are not Australian citizens, permanent residents, resident New Zealand citizens or immediate family members of Australian citizens and permanent residents.  All other persons can only enter Australia if the Australian Border Force (ABF) Commissioner grants an exemption, which are only available on limited grounds on a case-by-case discretionary basis.

People with critical skills may be granted an exemption if their employer can demonstrate the urgent need for that person to undertake critical work in Australia.  At present, foreign workers coming into Australia for employment using the TSS/482 visa program and having been nominated under the Priority Migration Skilled Occupation List are prioritised in terms of visa grant and the corresponding inbound travel exemptions:

  • Chief Executive or Managing Director (111111)
  • Construction Project Manager (133111)
  • Mechanical Engineer (233512)
  • General Practitioner (253111)
  • Resident Medical Officer (253112)
  • Psychiatrist (253411)
  • Medical Practitioner nec (253999)
  • Midwife (254111)
  • Registered Nurse (Aged Care) (254412)
  • Registered Nurse (Critical Care and Emergency) (254415)
  • Registered Nurse (Medical) (254418)
  • Registered Nurse (Mental Health) (254422)
  • Registered Nurse (Perioperative) (254423)
  • Registered Nurses nec (254499)
  • Developer Programmer (261312)
  • Software Engineer (261313)
  • Social Worker (272511)
  • Maintenance Planner (312911)

For all other foreign workers who are nominated under other occupation codes will need to first seek inbound travel exemption having a “critical skill” that is required for Australia’s post-COVID economy recovery.

People who are granted travel exemptions and allowed to enter Australia must still undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine period, which further delays the worker’s ability to commence employment in Australia.

“Businesses need to consider which foreign workers are critically required in Australia for the foreseeable future.  To be successful in obtaining a travel exemption, businesses must provide strong supporting evidence demonstrating the critical need for that worker in Australia.”

Businesses should also consider whether they are willing to pay the cost of that person’s quarantine and whether the worker can commence work whilst in quarantine.

Is onshore visa processing the only option for 2021 for businesses looking to hire Foreign Talent?

In essence – the answer is no!

Whilst there are travel restrictions in place, the Australian Government is nonetheless cognizant of how foreign talent is critical to our economy.  We are observing many occupations and sectors falling within the concessional framework and there is an observable pattern in inbound travel exemption requests becoming apparent.

In addition, if a company is undertaking work for any Australian State or Federal Government and can obtain supporting letters or contracts, a travel exemption and visa is generally granted.  If your business is in technology, or if the employee has the critical skills or is delivering services in the critical sectors (eg. financial tech, manufacturing, film and media, engineering and mining, aged care, agriculture etc.) the Department will generally consider an exemption.

Highly skilled persons in one of the target sectors below may be able to apply for a permanent visa (Global Talent Independent visa), permanent residency will not be restricted to enter Australia by the border closures:

  • Agri-food and AgTech
  • Defence, Space and Advanced Manufacturing
  • FinTech and Financial Services
  • Energy and Mining Technology, Resources
  • MedTech and Health Industries
  • Cyber Security
  • Circular Economy
  • Infrastructure and Tourism
  • Digital Technology
  • Education

This is a great option as it is a priority process to permanent residency and permits entry to Australia.

How far in advance should the businesses plan when hiring new hires?

Businesses often have vacancies that need to be urgently filled by foreign nationals because suitable workers cannot be found locally within Australia.  Foreign nationals cannot start work until they are granted an appropriate visa and can travel to Australia.  In the current environment, the process of obtaining a visa is significantly impacted by two main factors:

  1. Processing of visa applications has changed.  The Department responsible for the management of Australia’s visa program has advised of significant disruption to its services as a result of COVID-19.  This is due to a range of factors, including the closure or reduced capacity of related services (such as biometric collection and visa medical services), the redeployment of staff to other duties (such as the processing of travel exemptions), and the temporary closure of a number of offshore processing centres due to the pandemic.  For example, the Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) Visa, the standard temporary visa to mobilise skilled workers to fill skill shortages, previously took approximately one month to process. The current published processing time is now between 4 and 9 months.

Further, visa applications made offshore are currently not being processed unless the traveller has been granted a travel exemption to enter Australia.

  1. The process of sponsoring a worker is more difficult than it was in the pre-COVID-19 environment.  The Department is reviewing sponsored visa applications closely, to ensure that there is a genuine need for the foreign worker, and that the position cannot reasonably be filled by an Australian.  The strengthening of Labour Market Testing, which involves additional advertising within the Government website has been used to monitor the local skill shortages.  Given the rising unemployment rates in Australia, and the significant economic downturn across a number of industries, it is not surprising that the sponsoring of foreign workers is facing increased scrutiny.

“A proactive approach to workforce planning will help considerably in minimising delays in filling roles and on-boarding staff.  Human resource managers should think about resourcing needs in the long term so they are ready when the demand arises to employ and mobilise workers from the global labour market.”

  • Businesses should start planning which workers they may require inside Australia in the next 6 – 12 months.  If workers are not in Australia, businesses may need to account for several months of lead time for the visa processing and travel exemption processing periods.  Check if their occupation is on the PMSOL, and check if they have immediate family members who are Australian citizens or permanent residents.
  • When hiring for a role, HR managers should advertise in a form which meets the TSS ‘labour market testing’ requirements.  That way, if they cannot find a local worker, they can hire a foreign worker without supplementary advertising which can increase the lead time.

Are there any immigration pathways that offer priority processing?

At present, there are expedited permanent visa options, such as the Global Talent Independent Program (GTIP) for those workers being offered or who are capable of earning a base salary of AUD153,600 (exclusive superannuation and other packages).  The processing time is currently around 4 – 5 months.  This means if planned well, the company can have this employee travel in and out of Australia within 6 months.

If the business is undertaking work for any Australian State or Federal Government and can obtain support letters or contracts, a travel exemption and visa is generally granted.  If the business is in tech, or if the employee has the critical skills or is delivering services in the critical sectors (eg. Financial tech, manufacturing, film and media, engineering and mining, aged care, agriculture etc.) the Department will consider an exemption.

In addition, accredited sponsors have access to priority processing with many temporary and permanent visas being approved within timeframes pre-COVID.  This is an opportune time to explore the accreditation requirements which should start with compliance.

That said, we are hoping to see a softening of the border restrictions and the easing of the travel exemptions over the next 12 months with the implementation of additional preventative measures around COVID-19.

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