What Makes A Skilled Migrant?

March 19, 2021
Myer Lipschitz

If we accept that Covid 19 and the resulting Australian and New Zealand border closures are an aberration, we accept that both countries will rely upon the importation of skills to satisfy skill shortages, facilitate population and economic growth. But both countries have a different philosophy on what constitutes a quality skilled migrant with different perspectives as to the weight to attach to factors such as family, qualifications, work experience, age, English-language ability, employability etc.

I was prompted to write this blog as a result of a Zoom consultation with a current client of mine who is feeling frustrated that state governments in Australia are not sponsoring migrants from overseas and had, for the last 12 months, focused on sponsoring onshore applicants in Australia. I explained to him that this was a Covid induced aberration and once the Australian population had been vaccinated, the country would return to importing skills from abroad. I reassured him that his occupation (civil engineer) was a good one as far as Australia is concerned although I never know which occupations will appear on state sponsorship lists in advance.

I made this comment because there has always been a shortage of civil engineers in Australia and this occupation nearly always appears on several of the eight state and territory sponsorship lists that are published annually. In other words, there are “good” occupations as far as Australia is concerned that have a history of appearing on state sponsorship lists. Whilst there is no guarantee that any occupation will appear on one of these lists, I do find that history tends to repeat itself and if an occupation has been sponsored in the past, it will tend to appear on future state sponsorship lists.

I am of course referring to the Australian visa process known as general skilled migration where skilled migrants can obtain permanent residence without needing an offer of employment. There is an alternative pathway for those people relying upon obtaining an offer of employment in Australia and relying upon the employer to nominate them for permanent residence.

There are lists of occupations that are suitable for both pathways and these lists of occupations are obtained from a large online directory known as ANZSCO (Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations).

South Africans often tell me that they are so desperate to leave South Africa that they will sweep streets in Australia if need be, and I respond by telling them that this is a very noble sentiment but unfortunately the occupation of street sweeper does not appear on any list of occupations. I make this comment tongue in cheek but it does demonstrate that the Australian skilled visa system is all about occupations on various lists that are suitable for different visa types.

State governments then utilise the list of general skilled migration visa occupations to populate their state sponsorship lists depending upon the occupations deemed to be required in the various states and territories. If you are suitably skilled in one of these occupations you could approach a state government for sponsorship which forms an integral part of your general skilled migration visa application.

The main attraction of a general skilled migration visa is that employers don’t have to act as your sponsor for a work visa because general skilled migration visas provide full work rights for both the main applicant and their partner. The government in Australia has made it bureaucratically complex, expensive and onerous to sponsor workers for temporary work visas who don’t have general skilled migration visas.

It’s not a bad system in theory but there are numerous flaws:

1. Some of these general skilled migration visas are valid for a period of five years and if coupled with the lengthy processing time it can be several years before migrants arrive in the sponsoring state and by then their skills might not be in short supply.

2. We find that state governments tend to have a history of sponsoring the same occupations year upon year with minor variations. Logic dictates that this should never be the case because the state economy will evolve over time as skills are added and as the nature of the economy changes which indicates that there is a disconnect between economic reality and public sector perception. I have never found any list of occupations produced by a government whether federal or state to be truly representative of the needs of an economy.

3. There is no requirement to actually work in the nominated occupation. Australia is banking upon a significant proportion of migrants working in the nominated occupation when they arrive in Australia but this often isn’t the case.

4. In return for state sponsorship migrants sign an undertaking to live in the sponsoring state for two years but many move interstate within the two year timeframe thus defeating the purpose of state governments determining skill sets required by a particular state. The fact that their visa does not legally bind them to that state even for two years if their circumstances change post being granted their visa is another short coming in the process in our view.


New Zealand immigration policy also refers to ANZSCO but they have largely shied away from lists of occupations and instead place heavy emphasis upon employability, with an offer of skilled employment being the ultimate testament to a skilled migrant’s ability to settle well and contribute to the economy and skills base by securing an offer of skilled employment. They rely upon factors such as the level of skill required to perform the tasks of the particular occupation as well as salary as determining factors rather than lists of occupations.

New Zealand still has lists of occupations but those that are in long-term skills shortage can contribute certain bonus points and of course there are lists of occupations that facilitate temporary work visas by avoiding the need for employers to advertise positions.

Lists, lists, lists and more lists.

The skilled migration policies of Australia and New Zealand reveal philosophical differences between the countries. Australia has two pathways, those where employers are prepared to assume the onerous undertakings and sponsor workers in occupations that appear on lists and a pathway where state governments pick “winners” i.e. those in occupations deemed to be in demand in a particular state.

New Zealand’s approach is to allow the migrant to demonstrate contribution of skills by way of employability in New Zealand.

Neither country places much emphasis upon family reunification and whether skilled migrants have family in either country is largely irrelevant to resident visa opportunities. New Zealand is more generous with regard to age limits (56 is the cut-off age limit for skilled migration) whereas Australia has an age limit of 45 for the main applicant. Both countries give higher weight to academic qualifications as opposed to trade qualifications which is ironic because trades are some of the most in demand occupations across both countries. English language ability tends to play a more significant role in the Australian visa process than in New Zealand.

As to which is the better system, one could argue the merits of both, however one of the immigration programs that proved to be the most effective was perhaps the American system where large waves of immigrants moved to America in the early 1900s in the absence of any sophisticated selection criteria. The system’s success was in accepting those people prepared to endure the hardships of migration who would be inherently risktakers and made of the “right stuff”.

I’m not advocating adopting a similar program in Australia and New Zealand (I would soon be out of a job) but knowing the immigration policy of both countries and having offices in both is certainly a distinct advantage because, whilst applicants might have preferences in terms of country they intend to migrate to, both are more similar than they would like to admit, and often it’s the ease of obtaining a residence visa that is the determining factor in which country you should migrate to.

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