A solution to Australia’s skills shortage is within our grasp

Employers who are serious about ending their skills shortages should tap into migrant and refugee populations. Because these cohorts are better educated and higher skilled than most of us.

Community Corporate CEO Carmen Garcia connects employers with a skilled and mostly underutilised workforce of migrants and refugees.

In her words, Community Corporate “acts exactly like a recruiter but with a social conscience,” identifying talent who can match the job requirements and also add value to a business.

“We have a significant database of talent nationally and we’re always looking for employers who are willing to fill some of their skills shortages with a low-risk proposition,” she said.

According to federal government agency Jobs and Skills Australia, the nation’s skills shortage is growing.

With almost half of professional occupations in shortage last year, the agency noted a common thread was “they require a high level of skills and knowledge, qualifications and experience”.

These occupations include ones in engineering, information communication technology, science and health. Sales and marketing manager, taxation accountant and biomedical engineer were also added to the list last year.

While labour market dynamics are complex, the agency noted some shortages are due to a ‘suitability gap’ where employers receive fewer suitable and qualified applicants for a vacant role. Employers’ reasoning for unsuitability often mentioned a lack of work experience or employability skills, like good communication, motivation, initiative, leadership, patience, resilience and teamwork.

For migrants and refugees, the requirement for local work experience is a chicken-and-egg problem. As is the need to show examples of those soft skills in the workplace; as if they were not used in abundance in making the move to another country.

Garcia said one thing we tend to forget is the comparative skill level of our migrant and Australian-born populations.

Among OECD countries, Australia has one of the most highly educated migrant populations. 69 per cent of our recent migrants and temporary residents, have a tertiary qualification and almost four-fifths of those qualifications are a bachelor degree or higher. In our general population aged 15-74, only 32 per cent have a bachelor degree or higher.

The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) estimated a cost of more than $1.25 billion in foregone wages annually due to skilled migrants working in roles beneath their skill levels.

Community Corporate has long been an advocate for the transferability of overseas qualifications and skills.

The organisation launched a two-year pilot in March 2022 of Refugee Digital Cadetships, funded by the federal government and supported with industry training from Google, Cisco, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and ServiceNow.

Digital cadets accessed these vendor industry-accredited courses to support upskilling participants before they were placed in 12-week cadetships.

“One of the challenges is when reaccreditation is required – like in health services, that’s often quite hard,” Garcia said.

“But we could see the technical skills and capability the refugees had was transferable, because digital, arguably, is universal – different platforms, different products, but the core abilities are there.”

During a refugee’s journey, there is often a displacement period where they may be in a camp or informally transitioning to a safe country before settling in Australia.

“For many program participants, we saw such proactiveness in keeping their skills sharp through personal projects, even though they didn’t have work experience over that displacement period,” Garcia said.

She said for the program, and for Community Corporate’s other initiatives, the organisation took a competency-based approach to assessing applicants.

“We understand employers do get a bit nervous or uncertain when qualifications and experience are from overseas,” she said.

“But refugees don’t have access to references because many of their referees are refugees themselves who are also displaced around the world.

“What we’ve tried to do to create an opportunity for both the employer and the refugee, where refugees are hired directly by employers and can demonstrate they can meet the requirements of the role.

“Based on their performance, they can be offered ongoing opportunities or contract extensions, or matched to a specific area of expertise.”

Those areas have included cyber security, tech desk, software engineering, Power BI, data analysis and, Garcia said, “everything in between”.

More than 50 cadets were placed within the IT departments of major employers in SA and NSW.

Locally, Garcia said OTR had leaned into the opportunity and “uncovered some great hidden talent”.

There was also positive feedback on Community Corporate’s role in acculturation and helping cadets adjust to Australian workplace culture, standards and expectations.

“It was a critical component in getting them job ready, because they did have the transferability of skills,” Garcia said.

“The majority of employers who met our refugee cadets were very inspired and also in awe of the level and extent of experience they actually brought to Australia.”

The program had an impressive success rate: 96 per cent of participants had their 12-week cadetship extended, with contracts ranging from 6 months to permanent, ongoing roles.

The University of Sydney Business School is yet to publish the evaluation report, but Garcia said the preliminary findings have shown the model works.

“This has just proven there is a business case around this untapped pool of talent,” she said.

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Running the program was also an opportunity to bust any myths around the hiring people on refugee category visas; holders of the visas can stay permanently in Australia and work and study here.

“It doesn’t cost an employer any more; it’s like hiring any other Australian,” Garcia said.

The financial benefit to the cadets was large: average weekly earnings increased by a very conservative estimate of 60 per cent. One cadet who was hired by OTR in SA increased their income by nearly 150 per cent.

Before the program, almost half of participants were on Centrelink benefits and another quarter on survival jobs not related to their IT experience, stacking shelves and picking tomatoes.

Garcia said the success of the project has led to new opportunities in the pipeline.

Professor Betina Szkudlarek of The University of Sydney Business School said their evaluation found benefits for all parties from using the collaborative model for upskilling.

“On one hand, it addresses the issues of refugee workforce integration […] because the context within which they relocate, that forced migration, means that they are not prepared and don’t have anyone to open doors or for them,” Szudlarek said.

“At the same time, it’s a wonderful opportunity for corporations to get a new source of talent entering the organisation, while advancing their diversity and inclusion strategies.

“We see it as an interesting, sustainable model, but it does rely on the strong leadership of a service provider […] that understands both sides of the story.

“And it does require organisations that are committed to the developmental approach and supporting [the cadets] on that initial part of the journey.”

She said the model can be applied to other industries, including finance, human resources, engineering and logistics.

“We asked this question to employers who participated in the study and their response was yes, definitely,” she said.

“Within some industries it may be much easier, simply because IT is such a wide domain.”

Jobs and Skills Australia noted another factor in the ‘suitability gap’ could be the unconscious bias of employers.

Garcia agreed and said “people are crying out for talent, but there are still processes in place that by virtue of their nature are unconsciously biased against migrants and refugees”.

“The first step is engaging with an employer who is prepared to look at their diversity, equity and inclusion strategy [and ask] how are they recruiting and is there already some subliminal bias within their recruitment process.”

Understanding the difference between equality and equity is also important, she said.

“If everyone has to have the same interview questions, that doesn’t facilitate an equal outcome if English is a second language.”

Garcia said the program proved the business case for looking at refugees and migrants for higher level roles, but that setting internal targets could help to boost consideration.

“Businesses know that doing good is good for business,” she said.

“But, unlike environmental or gender targets where these are really clear, when it comes to cultural inclusion around refugees and migrants, it’s really an opt in.”

Refugee Week continues until Saturday, 22 June.

Carmen Garcia is a judge for InDaily and CityMag’s 40 Under 40 awards, with Community Corporate the sponsor of the Social Impact Award. This year’s winners will be announced at a gala event at Adelaide Oval on 27 June. Ticket sales close this Monday.

40 Under 40 acknowledges the support of event partners Unico Zelo Wines, Vale Ale Beers, Applewood Distillery Gin, Fever-Tree and trophy makers Brickworks.

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