When the COVID-19 pandemic kicked in many overseas travellers chose to leave Australia, but not Italian engineer Alessandro Pappalardo.
- The federal government will increase the cap on permanent skilled migrants to 195,000 this financial year
- The change includes an additional 9,000 places for regional Australia
- Temporary visa holders who stayed in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic are struggling to get permanency
He came to Australia in 2013 on a two-year working holiday visa, before returning to Europe to complete a Master of Engineering degree.
The lure of Australia was strong. In late 2019, Mr Pappalardo moved to Byron Bay, joining the large migrant community that called the Northern Rivers home.
“People like me who decided to stay during the pandemic did so because this is our home, we dream of growing our families here,” he said.
“Unfortunately, lots of those people are now giving up on the Aussie dream and moving away because of the difficulty in getting a visa.”
Overhauling the visa program was a focus of last week’s national jobs and skills summit.
Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil acknowledged some of the issues and said there was too much of a focus on temporary migration.
“One of the big problems that we’ve created is that it’s very easy to come [to Australia] as a temporary worker, probably in a pretty low-skilled job, but virtually impossible to come here permanently as a high-skilled worker,” she said.
Mr Pappalardo agreed that lay at the heart of the issue.
“The majority of those who stayed during the pandemic are now on temporary COVID visas,” he said.
“There are people with masters and doctorates working in construction or hospitality.
“What company is going to hire someone with a temporary visa who is restricted in the number of hours they work?”
Could New Zealand lead the way?
In September 2021, the New Zealand government opened its arms to foreigners who lived there during the COVID-19 pandemic and created a new pathway to residency.
That hasn’t happened in Australia.
“The process of applying for a skilled migration visa is long and complicated, even for someone like me who has a masters degree in engineering and speaks fluent English,” said Mr Pappalardo.
“It is disheartening for all the people who stayed and helped the Australian economy during the pandemic, the people who spent weeks volunteering during the Northern Rivers floods.”
Tourism at risk as businesses suffer
On Friday, the federal government confirmed Australia’s permanent migration cap would lift by 35,000 for 2022–23, in an attempt to address economy-wide skills shortages.
That would take the cap to 195,000 this financial year. The increase included an additional 9,000 places for regional Australia.
Tourist towns such as Byron Bay rely on a stream of overseas workers to staff the bustling businesses, but that stream dried up during the pandemic.
The Northern Rivers regional director of Business NSW, Jane Laverty, said the “staffing crisis” was the latest threat to business owners in the region.
“Some are restricting their opening hours, many of them are back on the tools and they’re looking for any and every lever and mechanism that is available to them, to get staff into their business,” she said.
“[Migration is] not the only lever but it’s certainly one that many of them are looking at as part of our solution moving forward.”
Byron Bay-based migration lawyer Mark Ryan said the current visa system was too costly for most small businesses to consider the option of sponsoring overseas staff.
“We need to make the visa system more financially accessible to small business because the cost to potentially sponsor an employee is between $7,000 and $10,000,” he said.
“It’s a massive investment up-front before the staff member has even started working in that business.”
Ms Laverty said those in the tourism and hospitality industry were concerned the staffing crisis would negatively impact the Byron Bay brand.
“They’re conscious that when they are understaffed, they’re not providing a great experience for visitors into our region,” she said.
“If we cannot service our visitors when they are here and give them a seven-day and sometimes 24-hour experience, then they may be making decisions not to come back, or to come here less.”