Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Destination focus: West is now best in Australia

A cooling economy and new skills shortages have changed the Irish emigrant experience

Fri, May 17, 2013, 00:01


Ciara Kenny

With its hot climate, beautiful beaches and laidback lifestyle, Australia has long been a favourite travel destination for young Irish people. In 2007, at the height of the boom in Ireland, more than 17,000 Irish under-30s headed Down Under on the year-long working holiday programme, the majority of whom went backpacking along the east coast, taking up casual jobs along the way to fund their trip.

But the demographic of the recently arrived Irish population in Australia has changed dramatically since as unemployment rose in Ireland and the Australian economy contined to prosper. In the 12 months to last June, almost 26,000 Irish were granted a working holiday visa, but analysis by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship recently showed the majority of Irish are now using it as an employment opportunity or pathway to permanent residency in Australia rather than for tourism purposes.

This is borne out in the figures. Although the numbers applying for working holiday visas for the first time in the second half of last year fell by 29 per cent as the popularity of other, more long-term options grew, those applying to extend their working holiday visa for a second year increased by 34 per cent, to 3,735.

The number of four-year, employer-sponsored 457 visas granted to Irish workers and their family members is also on the up, with 10,130 issued in the 12 months to last June, quadruple the 2006-2007 figure. Only British and Indian citizens were allocated more 457 visas than the Irish, who claim about one in 10 of the permits issued.

The resource-rich region of Western Australia has overtaken New South Wales as the most popular destination for employer-sponsored workers from Ireland, followed by Victoria and Queensland. Carpenters and joiners were the biggest group taking up 457s, followed by engineers, project administrators, electricians, plumbers, architects and motor mechanics. Accountants, nurses and other medical practitioners topped the list of occupations not related to construction or mining, while cooks secured the most nominations of every nationality.

Despite recent concerns over the tightening of rules around 457 visas, due to be introduced in July in an effort to control abuse of the scheme by employers, the number being granted to Irish people is still increasing, up 9.1 per cent in the last nine months.

But the most sought-after route for Irish people looking to work in Australia is permanent residency, which was secured by 4,578 Irish people last year, up from just 1,443 in 2006-2007. The majority were workers whose skills are in demand in Australia, who were granted access through the state-sponsored migration programme.

An increasing number of Irish people are becoming Australian citizens too, with over 1,400 successful applicants in the past year alone.

Edwina Shanahan of Irish migration agent says the age profile of those applying for Australian visas through them has been steadily rising, and in the last few months there has been a significant increase in professional people like teachers, accountants and civil servants considering the move.

“Many of the tradespeople are long gone, because the construction industry in Ireland collapsed years ago,” she says. “But since the beginning of this year we are seeing more people in professional occupations and public service positions who still have jobs applying to go to Australia because they are finding it hard to make ends meet here.”

Economy slowing

In April last year, the IMF predicted Australia would be the best performing major economy in the world from 2012 to 2014, but since then, financial market volatility and gobal uncertainty have led to a distinct slowdown, which is having an influence on the labour market.

Unemployment across the country was 5.6 per cent in April, the highest rate since 2009. The construction industry has contracted and business confidence has fallen, resulting in a “hesitancy on the part of firms to hire new staff”, according to a recent governmnent report on employment.

The mining industry may also be weakening as a result of a decline in demand from China, and there have been reports of Irish workers, especially in Western Australia, being laid off by employers with little notice. Those on employer-sponsored 457 visas are under pressure to find another sponsored job within 28 days, otherwise they have to leave the country, often with their family in tow.

A report by the Department of Education and Employment found a “marked fall” in the extent of skill shortages across the country last year too, and a survey of online vacancies showed there was a 23 per cent fall in the number of positions advertised last year.

Link, a network of welfare organisations working with the Irish community around Australia, has warned of a significant rise in the number of people seeking their assistance when they can’t find work and find themselves struggling financially. Joan Ross of the Claddagh Association in Perth recently told The Irish Times that some young people, particularly men, are arriving from Ireland totally unprepared, expecting to be offered a job as soon as they get off the plane.

“They get money together for a one-way ticket and a visa, and hope to walk straight into work. They might have a couple of hundred dollars in their pockets when they arrive, but the cost of living is extremely high here and if they have trouble finding a job at all their money can run out very quickly,” she said.

Farming work in regional areas of Australia, which can form part of the three months’ work in regional areas required for working holiday visa holders to extend their stay from one year to two, is also becoming harder to secure. Jackie Jarvis, WA manager of the Harvest Hotline group which helps to place backpackers with farmers looking for casual labourers, told ABC News last week that farmers all over Australia are being “literally inundated” with applications.

“In some situations where there might be say, 25 fruit picking jobs available, we’re hearing stories of hundreds of backpackers turning up because of word of mouth,” she said.

Skills shortages

Although they are not as acute as before, skills shortages still persist in certain occupations, with vacancies in the automotive trades, engineering and mining-related industries most difficult to fill, especially in regional areas of Western Australia and Northern Territory. It should be noted, however, that the majority of positions in mining are on a fly-in-fly-out (known as FIFO) basis, which means workers spend a few weeks working in regional areas every month before flying back to an urban centre where their family may be living.

According to a recent Clarius Skills Index report prepared by KPMG, the occupations in most demand across Australia include corporate services managers, engineers, ICT professionals and advertising and sales managers. These are followed closely by accountants, legal professionals and construction managers.

While the focus of Western Australia’s recruitment drive has been on construction, mining and engineering in recent years, the WA Skilled Migration Unit, which sent a representative to the Working Abroad Expo in March, is now focusing on attracting chefs, cooks, bar staff and managers from Ireland for the hospitality industry. Perth has a particular shortfall, with up to 2,000 vacancies needing to be filled by the end of this year across hotels, wineries, vineyards and restaurants.

The Australian healthcare system is currently experiencing a critical shortage of nurses and midwives, especially in New South Wales (read a previous Generation Emigration article about it here). Nationally, there is a predicted shortfall of more than 110,000 positions in the next 12 years, and Irish nurses are particularly sought-after as they are English-speaking and regarded as highly trained.

The Western Australian Police, which needs to employ an additional 500 members before next year, has also been actively recruiting Irish gardaí at recent fairs in the UK, and are still accepting applications from those who have applied for permanent residency status in Australia.

A major national broadband fibre optic project in Melbourne has created opportunities for IT professionals, while several thousand electrical tradespeople with experience working with high-voltage pylons will be needed for infrastructure works in the Northern Territory in the coming years.

For Barry Corr, director of HR consultancy Luminant Talent Consulting and CEO of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce, preparation is key to making a successful move to Australia.

“You can never do enough research,” he says. “When we speak with candidates for prospective jobs with our clients, those who show an awareness of the marketplace and how they can transition from Ireland to Australia go to the top of the list.”

The chamber has expanded exponentially in the last five years in line with the rise in the number of young people arriving, and they now have a “traditional” membership of around 4,000 across Australia and another 4,000 followers on social media. They run a popular mentoring programme to partner young professionals with senior business people who are established in Australia, and information and networking events.

“There are significant opportunities all around Australia in all sectors, but the market is competitive and Australian employers expect people to make a significant contribution to the business,” Corr says. “They need to research their industry, have their qualifications accredited and ready, and demonstrate that they can make a significant contribution to the business, which employers now expect.”

“The government has a permanent migration programme with a quota of about 190,000 people per year and recognise they need to bring in large numbers of skilled workers to keep the economy going and feed the need for skilled labour,” says John McQuaid, director of Arrive Australia Migration Services who moved to Sydney from Ireland in 1989.

There is also a need to fix the demographic, as the population is ageing. By 2050, it is predicted there will be just 2.7 people of working age to support each Australian aged over 65, compared to five currently.

“They are in desperate need of young skilled people to keep the economy growing and to pay taxes to support those in retirement,” McQuaid says. “For many Irish people, especially those in their late 20s and early 30s, there are still plenty of opportunities here.”

Is there anything we’ve left out, or do you have any advice to share? Leave a comment in the box below this article.

Paperwork: the visa and permit options

All applicants for points-based programmes, which include permanent residency or state sponsored visas, must submit an online expression of interest through SkillSelect on the Department of Immigration website. Applicants must pass an English test, have a set amount of work experience in an occupation on the consolidated skills shortage list, and meet age requirements for the visa type. If the criteria are met, the applicant will be invited to lodge a formal visa application.

The consolidated skills shortage list for all of Australia currently has about 200 occupations listed. Each state or territory has its own separate list, so check both before applying. Note that these lists, as well as the application criteria, change regularly to meet immigration needs.

Application costs range from $360 for a working holiday visa to $3,060 for some of the skilled visas. Migration agents can assist with the application process for an additional fee, but are not essential. Many skilled workers will have to have their qualifications accredited, which could cost more and take up to 6 weeks.

Working holiday visa: Allows 18-30-year-olds travel and work for up to one year (you can work just 6 months with one employer). The visa can be extended by a year by working for three months in a regional or rural area.

Employer sponsored (457): The 457 visa entitles you to live in Australia and work for up to four years for an employer who will directly sponsor you. You need to have a job offer in Australia to apply, and the employer will have to prove your skills can’t be sourced in the local area. If you want to change positions your new employer must agree to sponsor you, and if you lose your job you must find another within 28 days. Workers can bring partners and children on secondary 457 visas. Changes to the programme will be announced in July, see for updates.

General Skilled Migration programme: for workers whose occupation is on the skills shortage list but don’t have an employer to sponsor them. Each state or territory has its own skills shortage list, and if your occupation is on it you can apply for a Skilled Nominated visa. If your occupation is not on the state list for the place you want to move to, but is on the national list, you can apply for a Skilled Independent visa.

Employer Nomination Scheme: allows employers to sponsor highly skilled workers.

Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme: designed to encourage skilled workers to move to regional areas.

Study visa: allows students to work 40 hours a fortnight. It is becoming increasingly popular, with numbers of Irish almost doubling to 645 between 2009 and 2012.

For more visa options or further details, see

Is there anything we’ve left out, or do you have any advice to share? Leave a comment in the box below this article.

This article is part two of a series on the labour markets in major destinations for Irish emigrants. Read part one on Canada here . For information on accommodation options in Australia, read Finding your dream home in Oz.