Jason King’s business needs workers with skills, but it’s a tough job to convince them to move to Swan Hill in regional Victoria.
Until now, he’s been able to offer migrant workers a regional visa, but that competitive advantage over many major centres has now gone.
The local council and employers are frustrated about a federal government declaration that anywhere outside of Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney is now a “regional” area for migration.
That means skilled migrants who come to Australia on regional visas can work in places such as Perth and the Gold Coast, bypassing country towns, and still apply for permanent residency after three years.
“I can’t see how they’re regional at all,” Mr King said.
He manufactures semi-trailers in Swan Hill, a town of 11,000 people located 340 kilometres north-west of Melbourne.
“It will be very hard for us to compete. I think Swan Hill won’t stand a chance, to be honest,” Mr King said.
“We struggle to source skilled labour here. We are so regionally based.”
Mr King said he was definitely looking for welding and fabrication workers – “skilled labour people with auto-electrical and mechanical backgrounds”.
He said the business had tried all sorts of things to attract workers, including a drive-in-drive-out program during the week from towns within a two-hour radius.
“It worked for a while, but it was short-lived because people miss their families or friends,” he said.
Mr King said skilled migrants were vital for his 50-strong workforce, which turns out 100 custom-made semi-trailers a year for clients across the country.
Johnny Versoza is one of two Filipino welders the business has brought to Australia on two-year employer-sponsored regional visas, and the company has more migrant applications in the pipeline.
“It’s really good, I like it,” Mr Versoza said, even though Swan Hill is “quite a bit different” to his home city of Manila.
“If you want to live in quiet place away from traffic and a lot of people, Swan Hill is the place to be.”
But the country life might not be for everyone, and the lure of Australia’s better-known cities, such as Perth and the Gold Coast, was likely to be strong for many prospective skilled migrants, he said.
“Yes, I think so. When I was back in the Philippines I heard a lot about the bigger cities here in Australia, and for me, I think people love to come [to them],” he said.
That’s what worries Swan Hill Rural City Council about the government’s decision to open up so many of the country’s big cities to regional migration.
Adelaide, Darwin and Hobart have been listed as regional for a while, but Perth, the Gold Coast and some other large urban centres are recent additions.
“It’s going to make it a lot more difficult to convince people to come to what is still outer regional, because migrants tend to want to go to things they’ve heard about and cities that resonate more for them,” said Muriel Scholz, the council’s economic development officer.
The council made a submission to a federal parliamentary inquiry into regional migration.
While Swan Hill is small compared with its metro cousins, its annual economic output is a hefty $2.7 billion, driven by fruit, vegetable and nut production, food processing and industrial manufacturing.
But it needs outside labour as unemployment in Swan Hill is very low at 3.2 per cent – well below the national average.
The council is calling on the federal government to provide extra incentives for migrants who choose to settle in outer regional areas – such as Swan Hill – rather than in major cities and the regional centres close to them.
“It would be good to give such migrants a quicker path to permanent residency, so say, instead of waiting three years, make it two,” Ms Scholz said.
Under new regional visas introduced this month, skilled migrants must work in regional areas for three years – up from two years – before they may apply for permanent residency.
The government is also abandoning the visa, which allows immediate permanent residency for skilled migrants sponsored by employers – the visa that Mr Versoza is on.
Mr Versoza said guaranteed residency was a very important factor for him “because when you’ve got permanent residency the government offers to get your family and bring them back here to Australia, and it’s a very good place here”.
‘What’s not to love about the Gold Coast?’
Translator Silvia Martinez and her husband Carlos Pedraza came to Australia from Colombia as skilled migrants 13 years ago.
They did their “regional time” in Adelaide, rather than a smaller country town, before moving on to Brisbane and eventually settling with their two sons on the Gold Coast, where Silvia helps migrants access training and work.
“There isn’t much information about smaller country towns,” she said.
“We didn’t know about what sort of industries were there or opportunities. When you think about small towns you don’t think of major job roles in those places.”
She believes there is a danger places like Swan Hill will miss out on migrants “unless they do programs to promote and put out there what’s available”.
“When you think of the Gold Coast, there’s so much to do, [such as] the parks and beach and it’s easier to access medical services in a bigger town,” she said.
If it was me, I’d definitely choose the Gold Coast.’’
Swan Hill council is actively promoting its region to prospective workers with a campaign called Dream Swan Hill.
“We actually have more days of sunshine than the Gold Coast and a wonderful lifestyle,” Ms Scholz said.
But with 48,000 job vacancies outside metro Australia – most of them for skilled workers, according to the Regional Australia Institute – places like Swan Hill could do with an extra hand from government.
Prime Morrison Scott Morrison has said that while “much of the focus is on regional areas … it’s important we have the opportunity for people to go where they are needed”, such as “outside the big city areas including Adelaide, Darwin, Hobart and Newcastle”.
By requiring skilled migrants to stay in regional areas for three years, rather than two, “the government anticipates that many … will choose to remain in regional Australia once they become permanent residents,” a spokesperson for the Home Affairs Department said.