Interview - Sky News AM Agenda with Peter Stefanovic
PETER STEFANOVIC: Tens of thousands of more skilled migrants will arrive in Australia from next year as the Albanese Government moves to fill chronic labour shortages by recognising trades and qualifications from more countries. Minister for Skills and Training, Brendan O'Connor joins me now. Minister, good morning to you. So how high can levels go?
BRENDAN O'CONNOR, MINISTER FOR SKILLS AND TRAINING: I obviously want to make sure we invest in our own workforce, invest in the skills that are in demand. But we've always relied upon, Peter, temporary and permanent skilled migration streams to boost our economy, to increase productivity, which will actually place downward pressure on prices of goods and services. We need a modern, skilled workforce. We need to invest in our own workforce, we need to supplement that with the skilled migration streams. We've always done that, and we'll always do that to attend to the economy, and make sure people, as I say, are able to afford things because prices are not sky rocketing.
STEFANOVIC: This has been a topic of conversation on this program for a while now, as you'd be aware of the different opinions on the matter, as well, Minister. I mean, some business groups believe that migration levels should be upwards of 220,000 a year, which is an increase of where it is right now by some margin. So back to the figure, have you got something in mind up to 180,000, 200,000 to 220,000? Have you worked that out yet?
O'CONNOR: No, the government hasn't made a decision on the threshold level of skilled migration. We're talking to businesses and unions and state and territory governments, training providers, universities. We're talking to people, and that's why the Jobs and Skills Summit will be so important. But we need to make sure it's not a binary choice. This is about investing in Australian workers in areas of demand so that they have more secure employment, and that businesses have the skills they need. It's also about targeting areas of acute demand, which we need to fill with skilled migrants. It's ensuring that we do both. And we can do both. And that's why the Jobs and Skills Summit in a few weeks is so important for us to set the right track for Australia to put downward pressure on prices, downward pressure on the cost of living, because as you know, many of your viewers are clearly struggling with cost of living pressures. We need to bring inflation down, we need to make the labour force more productive through increasing skills in the labour market. That's Australian workers, and of course, targeted skilled migration streams.
STEFANOVIC: Anika Wells [Minister for Aged Care] has cited problems within the aged care sector as well, which you're well aware of. She says increased migration is not a silver bullet. Is she right on that point?
O'CONNOR: Yes, it is not a panacea for all the problems that we confront. We need to make sure, for example, there are people that are not in the labour market right now that want to get a job, and we need to invest in them. We need to provide them with skills so they can work in areas of demand here and now. There are many Australians looking for work and we need to provide the skills requisite to fill those areas of demand. So it's never been one or the other. It's a combination that will provide the supply of workers and skills.
The OECD has indicated that Australia has the second highest labour shortage in the developed world, so we've got a big job ahead of us. But we'll be working together with employers and unions, state and territory governments and others to make sure we get this right.
STEFANOVIC: I was talking to one of the teachers unions, federal teachers unions, last week too about the teacher shortages at the moment, and we spoke about increased migration levels. And the union was saying, well, every country around the world at the moment is dealing with this need for skilled migrants as well. So whatever the number that you settle on, can you be sure that you'll even get to that level?
O'CONNOR: It will depend on the skill set. But you're right, Peter, there is a global competition for certain skills. We have to make sure we're seen as an attractive destination. But I'll also say to employers who are calling out for higher levels of skilled migration, we have to get the investment in infrastructure right. We need to have sufficient housing and other infrastructure investments so that we can deal with the intake of skilled migrants. And so we need to look at this holistically across government, but also, of course, the corporate sector has its role to play as do state and territory governments in dealing with the implications of providing opportunities for skilled migrants in our labour market. But I want to finish on this: as the Skills Minister, our priority will also be to invest in Australian workers, those in the labour market and those seeking work, because there are opportunities here for people who've been locked out of the labour market if we invest appropriately, so that they can acquire the skills and knowledge in areas of demand so they can get secure employment. That's a really important goal of the Albanese government as well.
STEFANOVIC: Jennifer Westacott points to the backlog of current visa approvals that needs to be cleared. That's a key point of it, too. How long do you think it could take to clear that backlog?
O'CONNOR: Well, my colleagues, Clare O'Neil and Andrew Giles are working on unclogging this process. In fact, there's been a lack of resources placed on processing applications, which has caused many of these problems. So that is a priority. There's a focus right now on accelerating the processing of applications that have been frozen in time, it would appear, after the failure of the previous government really to focus on that issue, and have the resources within the departments because let's be clear here, this is an important function. We're assessing who comes into this country and whether they have the requisite skills. We have to do it properly. So we are dedicating more resources to make sure we free up that, accelerate the process, so that we can supply those areas where there are acute shortages. Whether it be aged care, whether it be in other areas of our economy.
STEFANOVIC: So it sounds like they could take many months to sort through.
O'CONNOR: No, no, it is happening. It is happening right now. But we need to dedicate our efforts to areas of acute shortage and we are looking to do that. But over the medium to longer term too we need to invest taxpayers money in education and training so that Australian workers are acquiring the skills in areas of demand now and into the future. So it is not just one job. There's multiple things that we need to do here and we'll be attending to that. And that's why the Jobs and Skills Summit coming up is an important opportunity for government, employers, unions and others to tackle this together.
STEFANOVIC: Brendan O'Connor, the Minister for Skills and Training there. Thanks for your time this morning. Appreciate it.
O'CONNOR: Thanks Peter.