Opinion: Australia must prioritise regional workforce

Meeting the challenge: There are ways to attract much-needed migrant labour to regional areas.
Meeting the challenge: There are ways to attract much-needed migrant labour to regional areas.

Over the past few weeks, there has been growing speculation about a federal government plan to increase regional migration with five-year regional visas, an agriculture visa, as well as reforms to designated area migration agreements - all being flagged in media articles.

At the Regional Australia Institute (RAI) this is an issue we are closely monitoring – as are many regional communities across the country.

While immigration numbers remain a hot topic, the reason we need to rethink our migration system in Australia is not only to alleviate congestion levels in our big cities, but to address the workforce needs in many of our regional cities and towns.

Currently, the migration system in Australia can’t respond to workforce demands outside Melbourne, Sydney, and south-east Queensland.  

However, by force of habit, most Australians will assert if asked, that there are no jobs in regional Australia. This damaging and pernicious generalisation doesn’t stand up to simple scrutiny.  

This view is often pushed by those who should be better informed. I would encourage them to consult the latest statistics and to take the time to talk to businesses and local leaders in places like Kalgoorlie, Warrnambool, the South Coast of Victoria, Orana region, and the Riverina in NSW.

This effort will confirm that getting permanent workers to take up existing opportunities in local industries and services is a major constraint. 

In the past two years, the figures that we have been monitoring show that job vacancies in regions around Australia have gone up by 20 per cent.

I completely agree that forcing migrants to go to regions won’t work. Instead, we need a migration system that facilitates people with the right skills for regional work and who hail from regional and rural areas overseas. 

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The additional good news is that reform can be done simply and quickly. Designated Area Migration Agreements (DAMA) are an existing policy that can be adapted to prioritise regions with specific job shortages that can’t be filled by local workers. 

Future agreements need to be simpler and less onerous, as well as being better aligned to the diversity of regional job shortages. Agreements should also be reached with regions within a three-month period, rather than two years. This is readily achievable if the government is willing to reform and proactively implement this existing policy.

At the RAI, we have documented some incredible examples of places around the country where communities have embraced migration. This week in Bendigo, a new research report has found that in net present value terms (NVP), the total economic impact from the regional resettlement of the Karen population on the Bendigo economy is estimated to have been $67.1 million over a 10-year period. 

Furthermore, an extra 177 full-time equivalent jobs were created in the local economy, as a direct result of the Karen resettlement. Australia needs to prioritise its regional workforce. 

A five-year visa could help, but to be honest, we don’t think it is necessary. With a few changes to the existing DAMA policy, and some resources for local communities to help welcome migrants – regional communities will see a significant shift in the challenge of addressing the regional workforce shortage. 

Jack Archer is CEO of the Regional Australia Institute.