Pushing skilled migrants into regional areas threatens to stall the critical infrastructure construction pipeline that will ease congestion in Australia’s big cities, consultancy giant EY says.
With skills shortages hitting the construction and infrastructure sectors, and insufficient time to nurture homegrown experience or retrain workers, attracting appropriately skilled immigrants for the big infrastructure rollout is a key lever for the federal government to drive economic growth, EY global migration lead Wayne Parcell said.
“The government is keen to move people into the regions, but the data is showing we are running out of people to fix the infrastructure shortfall now, let alone into the future,” he said.
“You have to remember, for example, 65 per cent of all construction jobs in Victoria will be in transport infrastructure by 2025. Immigration is an important policy lever for the government’s economic growth agenda, and it needs to free up some of its immigration program to support construction and infrastructure initiatives.
“There must be a balance found between regional migration initiatives and a more targeted program of skilled immigration that supports the infrastructure creation needs in urban centres.’’
Federal Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure Minister Alan Tudge said the government was capable of delivering that balance.
“Our population plan strikes an important balance between ensuring we ease the population pressures in our big capitals while supporting the growth of our smaller cities and regions,” he said. “We are open to options to ensure the timely delivery of our $100 billion infrastructure pipeline, which is why I meet regularly with industry stakeholders. Industry supports the stability and certainty provided by our 10-year pipeline.”
The government’s population plan includes two regional visas that require skilled migrants to live and work in a regional area for three years before being able to access permanent residency.
Infrastructure Australia recently said infrastructure commitments were only “playing catch-up” and were unlikely to be sufficient to deal with future road and rail congestion. It highlighted the shortage of senior engineers in Australia, which was constraining the capacity to complete infrastructure.
Engineers Australia agreed there was a current and future skills pinch. “The number of engineers we produce in our universities will never be enough to meet demand, and we will need to top up through migration, either permanent or temporary,” Engineers Australia national manager public affairs Jonathon Russell said.
“Regional migration is not specific to a person’s occupation, and the reality is people can only go where there is employment, and most jobs are in the city, so I’m unsure how the government will reconcile these tensions.”
In 2006-11, only one in five international migrants settled in regional areas, Australian Bureau of Statistics data says.
Mr Parcell says a rethink is needed on how best to attract and retain skilled migrants for infrastructure and construction, and more flexibility must be introduced into the system.