Australia must increase levels of migration or risk shortages of skilled professionals and tradespeople as the recovery in building and construction activity gathers momentum, a key industry lobby group has warned.

The Australian Industry Group’s chief executive officer Innes Willox wrote to Federal Immigration Minister Scott Robinson late last month calling for an increase in overall number of skilled migrants the government planned to allow into the country under the 457 temporary work visa program from the current level of 190,000 to 220,000 in 2014/15.

In his letter, Willox argued a relatively high level of migration was appropriate due to persistent labour shortages in growth industries such as mining services, engineering, infrastructure and health services along with Australia’s relatively low level of unemployment and the deepening impact of our aging workforce.

Innes Willox

Innes Willox

He says skills shortages are particularly acute in occupations requiring science, technology, engineering and mathematics, while shortages in the building industry had been highlighted by recent Ai Group construction sector surveys.

During the six months to September last year, for example,  more than two thirds of respondents to an Ai Group construction sector survey reported either major or moderate difficulty in recruiting skilled labour whilst almost half (47.1 per cent) cited major or moderate difficulty in the sourcing of sub-contractors.

“With early indicators suggesting a positive upturn in national housing market activity, we expect the residential and commercial construction cycles will pick up significantly from 2014-15  which will in turn lead to further skilled trade shortages,” Willox said. “This will be exacerbated by the flow of construction workers into the mining sector and reduced trades apprenticeship numbers in recent years.”

“In particular, the flow of skilled workers into the mining industry from construction and industrial sectors will continue as mining moves from its current investment and expansion phase into a very strong period of growth in output and exports.”

Willox’s call comes amid ongoing debate about the 457 program in Australia.

Employer groups say it is necessary in order to meet skills shortages but unions fear it leaves foreign workers open to abuse and is being exploited by some employers unwilling to offer sufficient remuneration to attract Australian workers and/or train local workers. Those concerns prompted legislative amendments which came into force last November requiring employers to conduct market testing before seeking to employ temporary workers on the program.

At least for now, however, use of the program appears to be slowing.

Compared with the same period 12 months earlier, the overall number of applications for the program were down 45 per cent in the nine months to September last year, according to recent Department of Immigration figures. In the construction sector specifically, application numbers plummeted from 2,300 to just 900 during this time.

Those same figures show that average national base salaries for workers employed under the program during the aforementioned period within the building sector was $89,100.

By comparison, the most recent average weekly earnings figures from the ABS puts the average amount earned by local construction workers at $1,436 per week, or nearly $75,000 per year.