The Skills We Need are the Skills We Already Have
Haydn Aarons on the problems of high-skill humanitarian entrants to Australia
I have been involved in a research project with a multicultural organisation in Western Sydney. The research has revealed some interesting patterns regarding employment for humanitarian entrants to Australia.
Humanitarian entrants to Australia face numerous obstacles to a successful settlement. In addition to the intense psychological trauma that often accompanies forced migration, gaining adequate employment can also be an ordeal. Beyond the obvious benefits of employment, such as higher income and a departure from welfare dependence, work also confers dignity for migrants and refugees. Relatedly, the cultural dimensions of work are bound in various ways to forms of status and prestige, positioning someone not only in a labour market but within a social system of recognition and honour.
Migrants and refugees are good for the economic health of the nation. According to the Refugee Council of Australia the economic contribution of humanitarian entrants to Australia consists in ‘expanding consumer markets for local goods, opening new markets, bringing in new skills, creating employment, and filling empty employment niches’ (2010: 3). And despite short term costs of support, migrants and refugees go on to make life long economic contributions to their communities.
Australia’s settlement standards for humanitarian entrants state that in terms of employment, agencies and services should assist clients through a strengths-based approach (National Settlement Outcome Standards 2020). That means finding ways to engage these people in work that they are trained for, experienced in, and want to do.
Despite the benefits migrants and refugees bring and the recognition to assist them to reach their potential, accessing adequate employment is at times plagued with numerous hurdles; some relating to personal deficiencies, such as a low proficiency in English, but others to systemic and institutional exclusion, such as a lack of qualification recognition and skills equivalence.
However, the stories of hardship associated with employment for refugees may not conform to what you might assume. For the many informants of my research who a multicultural agency has assisted, lower levels of English proficiency, educational attainment, and work experience do not necessarily spell the economic precarity and confinement to entrenched disadvantage we might imagine. Many people in these categories, provided they receive adequate assistance, take up entry level positions in personal care, retail, and cleaning within a short time of commencing as a client with an agency. Further, many progress into more fulfilling careers through acquiring qualifications and experience, and many others are entrepreneurial and commence businesses where assistance is possible.
Conversely, many migrants and refugees who arrive shod with post-graduate qualifications and years of experience in the more prestigious professions are often confined to never resuming their careers, or have long, expensive, and protracted journeys in doing so. In Western Sydney alone, it is estimated that among refugees from the Middle East there are around three to five thousand people with an Engineering degree and multiple years of work experience who cannot find work as an Engineer here in Australia. This is to say nothing of the purported numbers of medical specialists, scientists, financial professionals, and architects, whose skills and professional lives remain idle. These are the people you hear about anecdotally: the ‘doctor who is now driving a cab’. As one respondent, a former Professor of Fluid-dynamics from Syria with around three hundred publications, put it: “We all know and discuss often; the less you have (in terms of skills and experience) the better you seem to be here in Australia”.
From my limited number of interviews, the social and personal consequences of experiences of acute downward social mobility or what sociologists term ‘declassment’ appear to be serious. Negative and sometimes severe impacts on mental health and family functioning are but two consequences that emerged from the data I have collected. However, so much about this category of job seekers amongst humanitarian entrants is still unknown, including their exact number and the deeper personal and familial impacts of occupational discrimination. Beyond personal troubles, however, are the economic and productivity inefficiencies to be counted because of a current lack of skills and experience in Australia in key industries such as engineering. Skills and expertise simply waiting in parts of Western Sydney and elsewhere could be activated by assisting high skilled humanitarian entrants into their former professions.
The National Skills Commission regularly publishes the skills the nation needs most to optimise productivity through its ‘Skills Priority List’ (see June 2021 notice). Topping the list are skills in engineering and construction, hence all the buzz about ‘STEM’ in schools in recent years. The skills mentioned in the latest report match very closely with the skills and experience sitting idle in parts of Western Sydney. Such skills gaps impact Australia in a couple of important ways. Firstly, it makes the nation less productive through major infrastructure development and construction lags, and secondly, it costs Australia by having to import such skills. Aside from the country, specific regions such as Western Sydney report yawning gaps between skills and productivity, despite the advent of enormous development in that region (Blacktown City Council 2018). So, the skills we need we already have, in the communities where they are needed!
The problem is partly due to recognition on behalf of government and industry, and partly due to ethnic discrimination. There is a disjointed approach to having qualifications recognised and skills accredited between government departments and professional bodies. The process is confusing, difficult, and costly. Numerous respondents for my research had no problems with having to demonstrate skills through tests and appropriate bridging courses, as are often required. Many respondents respect the need for a standards framework within industries such as engineering. However, there are virtually no support mechanisms to assist candidates through any process that might prepare them, and no financial assistance to prepare for or assist in paying for tests or courses (tests to accredit foreign trained dentists, for example, are around $12,000).
Another problem is local experience. However, even when qualifications are verified, skills standards are met, and experience is gained, there is a reluctance to employ suitably qualified and experienced professionals from the Middle East and elsewhere due to ethnic discrimination. Respondents reported applying for numerous jobs without any replies. This pattern is demonstrated through a number of studies in the social sciences where names, hobbies, and other references to cultural background are barriers to gaining employment compared with applicants whose names are Anglo-Celtic (see Bertrand and Mullanaithan 2004; Edo, Jacquemet and Yannelis 2019; Oreopoulos 2011 and 2012).
So, what’s needed to arrest the skills gap, elevate the status and well-being of skilled migrants and refugees, and meet the development needs of Western Sydney? Firstly, despite the widespread recognition of this problem (see Shergold et al 2019), there is no adequate agency or government mechanism to ably assist high skill humanitarian entrants, as there is for other classes of entrant, other than simply expecting people to – by some miracle or other – become proficient in professional vocational English and go back to university and redo their degrees; an option that is far too costly, time consuming, and unnecessary. Secondly, government and industry need to streamline and widely promote the qualification and skill recognition process, enabling candidates to gain local experience. Thirdly, the design and implementation of a trainee program that partners government, industry and higher education in a scheme designed to target and address the professional needs of this category of humanitarian entrant. The program would take effect through government subsidies to companies to employ skilled migrants and refugees part-time, make qualification recognition and skills equivalency more accessible, and work with universities and other educational providers to create specific vocational English courses and professional bridging courses through micro credentials or certificates.
Blacktown City Council., 2018. Economic Development Strategy and Service Delivery 2018 – 2021.
Bertrand, M. and Mullainathan, S., 2004. Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. American economic review, 94(4), pp.991-1013.
Edo, A., Jacquemet, N. and Yannelis, C., 2019. Language skills and homophilous hiring discrimination: Evidence from gender and racially differentiated applications. Review of Economics of the Household, 17(1), pp.349-376.
Oreopoulos, P., 2011. Why do skilled immigrants struggle in the labor market? A field experiment with thirteen thousand resumes. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 3(4), pp.148-71.
Oreopoulos, P. and Dechief, D., 2012. Why do some employers prefer to interview Matthew, but not Samir? New Evidence from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. New Evidence from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver (February 2012).
Refugee Council of Australia., 2010. ‘Economic, Civic, and Social Contributions of Refugees and Humanitarian Entrants: A literature review.’ Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Australian Government.
Settlement Council of Australia 2020. ‘National Settlement Outcomes Standards.’
Shergold, P., Benson, K. and Piper, M., 2019. Investing in refugees, investing in Australia. Australian Government.