Government meets industry to address changes to 457 Visa scheme

Industry oppose new Labour Agreement

The federal government will participate in a roundtable discussion with industry tomorrow to address recent changes to the 457 Visa scheme.

The roundtable has been organised in a bid to overcome fierce opposition to the changes including a new Labour Agreement template the government has introduced for On-hire companies.

The Agreement sets out the responsibilities and obligations of agencies for their overseas-sourced workforce, and local workers enforcing set levels of investment in training and development and other criteria that must be met.

It is the on-hire and contracting industries that have been particularly vocal about changes to the 457 scheme playing a key role in organising the roundtable which will include representatives from the Department of Immigration and the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

The 457 scheme has expanded rapidly in recent years with the Department of Immigration issuing a record number of visas to try and tackle Australia's worsening skills crisis.

The ICT industry is particularly reliant on the temporary 457 visa scheme as a reliable source of skilled migrants to fill the resources gap.

In the last decade the Australian economy has produced an additional two million jobs with more than 383,300 workers currently employed in the ICT industry, according to government figures.

One of the changes introduced under the scheme mandates that industry commit two per cent of a 457 Visa holder's wages to training and development.

This investment is part of a list of stated goals set out by the government under the 457 program. Whenever overseas skills are utilised these funds are used to re-skill the local workforce.

The idea is to reinvest in the Australian labour market as part of an overall strategy to address the skills crisis.

However, industry groups oppose the investment claiming it is 'unworkable' and 'financially unviable'.

Despite the changes, there has been a surge in the number of on-hire companies applying for Labour Agreements under the new 457 scheme.

But compliance continues to be an issue and only a handful of companies have been awarded Agreements.

This is one of the issues to be covered during tomorrow's discussions.

One company that has met obligations under the Agreement is ICT recruiter, 3W Consulting Contracting Recruitment Pty Ltd, the first firm to be approved since the changes were introduced.

The company has been able to source skilled ICT professionals across the globe, particularly from the Philippines.

3W CEO, Andrew McCarroll, said the company has taken a positive approach to the new scheme and built the training and development obligations into its business strategy.

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"We looked at our obligations under the Agreement and decided that engaging an overseas workforce would meet a number of goals," he said.

"This included solving our clients' skilled labour shortage problems and at the same time re-investing some of the profit we make on this team to develop our local skills base; and it's working."

Since gaining approval, McCarroll said the company has committed to an Australian Apprenticeship Scheme focused on ICT.

In the last month, 3W has employed six full-time IT apprentices who will receive a combination of on-the-job and formal training over the next two years.

Roundtable participants recognise that industry and government need to work together to develop a cohesive plan to address the skills crisis as the shortage is forecast to top 240,000 skilled workers by 2016.

Australia's shortage is in line with other western countries facing a similar scenario but it also means competing for talent in the global marketplace.

When the changes were first introduced Entity Solutions, which manages the engagement of 2,500 contract professionals, warned Visa holders to tread with caution when signing new Agreements.

The company warned contractors they may be left high and dry by agencies unable to continue to meet the new strict requirements.

New English language requirements were also introduced with stricter controls around past work experience.

According to the Department of Immigration, in the first nine months of 2007, 4290 visas were granted to IT firms which is more than the number issued for the entire previous financial year.

During the previous 12 months a total of 4190 visas were issued.

Despite global competition for skilled immigrants and migrant workers to Australia, the number of engineers migrating here has continued to double for the past two years.