Home opinion-and-analysis Beer Files 457 visa issue begs some uncomfortable questions

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With an election just three months away, the issue of 457 visas and replacing local jobs with foreign workers has raised its ugly head once again. Despite the populist rhetoric however, nobody seems to be asking some important questions.

Australia will soon lose one of its three remaining car manufacturers because that industry says it can’t compete with offshore makers. We are also importing skilled ICT workers because this industry says there is a local skills shortage.

In both cases, Australian governments of whatever political persuasion must shoulder a large portion of the blame rather than shifting it to employers. The questions should be why are employers importing ICT workers instead of emloying them locally, why have they cut funding to universities, and why are no school leavers enrolling in ICT courses?

Our governments spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on bribing unprofitable local subsidiaries of automakers to continue their inefficient practices. Instead, they should have been asking Ford and GM why they were still making obsolete oversized gas guzzling cars unsuited to a 21st Century Australian lifestyle.

The excuse offered is that Australia carmakers can’t compete with lower cost markets like China, South Korea, Taiwan and – wait for it – Germany! Yes that’s right, folks. Germany, where autoworkers get top dollar, excellent social security and six weeks annual leave, with no government bribes, is able to churn out and sell Volkswagens, Mercedes and BMWs by the millions each year – and they’re all made in Germany!

What’s more, these premium brand German cars can all be bought in Australia for prices not all that much more than the very average Falcon and Commodore vehicles still being produced. If you don’t believe this, simply visit the excellent carsales.com.au site and look for yourself. If you bargain hard, you can pick up a brand new Mercedes C 200 or BMW 320i for about $57,000. Demonstrators and still under warranty pre-owned executive driven models with less than 10K on the clock can be bought for much less. If that’s too rich for your blood, a new VW Passat will cost you about $37,000. You want cheaper? The Hyundai i40 is listed at $31,990, while the cheapest and – incredibly - only Australian made medium sized car, the Toyota Camry, is $30,490. Neither Holden nor Ford produce medium sized cars but the basic 6-cylinder Commodore Evoke VF costs $34,990 while the Falcon XR6 is $40,990.

After test-driving all these cars, it’s not too hard to understand why Ford is shutting down its Falcon making plants. Like the Commodore, they are no longer relevant in modern Australia where petrol costs $1.50 a litre, the average family has less than two children and EFI, turbo charged 4-cylinder engines in medium sized cars have rendered V8 family automobiles obsolete.

It is simply unacceptable to say Australian car manufacturers can’t compete. This country has been making cars for 65 years and it is the responsibility of our governments to make sure we keep that hard won capability. If governments were prepared to spend hundreds of millions on propping up an inefficient industry, then it should be doubly prepared to spend at least as much on making our car making industry competitive once again. If that means buying out the Ford plants and retooling them to produce relevant products then so be it. We already have the engineers, designers and knowhow to make cars. What we obviously don’t have is the expertise, processes and vision to produce the quality products that will sell locally and overseas. If we are going to use 457 visas for anything, then surely it’s time to use them to import high-level expertise that can be transferred to our local specialists.

In the ICT industry, we used to call that technology transfer and it used to be a component in government tenders awarded to multinational vendors. As part of its contract, a tender winner had to agree to include a technology transfer component to Australia. What that often meant in theory was that if a software development project was undertaken, the development expertise used in the completion of the project was taught to local developers.

There has lately been an indignant backlash voiced by local unemployed ICT professionals about attempts from certain sectors of the recruitment industry to portray a local skills shortage. In concert with this, there has been dismay expressed by universities about the low enrolments in ICT courses. School leavers have no wish to enrol in courses that have no job prospects when they graduate. The fact that there are no ICT jobs for graduates suggests that there is no large-scale local ICT skills shortage. In the few specialist ICT areas where there are shortages, governments should be moving to use the 457 visas program to bring in experts to train local professionals.

In addition, it doesn’t help to have a government cutting funds to universities at a time when it has never been more starkly obvious that education and expertise are vital resources.  Australia is a first world country and we cannot rely on our mineral wealth to deliver prosperity forever. We need to make things and they need to be things that are world class and can be sold both locally and globally - whether that happens to be cars or information technology.

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Stan Beer

 

Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.

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