A billion-dollar waste of migrant skills

| May 24, 2021

Jenny is a telecommunications engineer who migrated to Australia with her husband and children as a permanent skilled migrant four years ago. She entered Australia excited about her new life, but is still looking for a job in her field.

Every week, Jenny applies for more than a hundred jobs advertised on online job advertising platforms. She now works as a cleaner and a helper at a small Malaysian café.

“I am still looking for a job in my field in Australia. I’m not sure why I don’t hear from head-hunters. I don’t get replies. I’m a telecommunication engineer. I even try different roles. I even applied for factory work and customer service roles. I can’t get into any of them.”

Jenny is one of many highly skilled migrants who struggles to find a job commensurate to their qualifications, experience, and skill set.

According to Jenny, she has more than 10 years of work experience as a telecommunication engineer, and reasonably good English language proficiency. However, Jenny’s skills and experiences are not valued and recognised in Australia.

Ultimately, this creates the conditions where women like Jenny are forced into jobs well below her skill level. She explained how she felt about her job-hunting trajectory and downward economic and professional mobility:

“I do not think they recognise my qualifications and experience. I showed my CV to many people, including some of my friends who are working in the field, and everyone says I am qualified. I feel discouraged and sometimes feel like I will never be able to work as an engineer in Australia. I am fed up with it.”

As Jenny notes, downward career mobility doesn’t only result in lower wages; it swiftly moves women in vicious cycles of underemployment and low self-esteem.

As evidenced in Jenny’s story, which aligns with stories from many other skilled migrant women from culturally diverse backgrounds, these experiences create a “scarring” effect, triggering a depreciation of their own skills and self-confidence.

“…. It is a disappointment. I don’t feel like applying for jobs in my field any more. Even if I work and gain Australian experience, I will be judged and will never be rewarded for who I am. So, I decided not to further my career and disappoint myself. I had to choose between my passion and reality. So, I choose the reality.”

Jenny’s story highlights numerous barriers skilled migrants face in finding jobs at their full capacity, and the impacts this has on them in their daily life in Australia.

While Australia’s skilled migration program is viewed as a success story, it’s reported that one in four permanent skilled migrants work in a job beneath their skill level, and this skill underutilisation is costing the Australian economy at least $1.25 billion.

My research underscores the impact of this underutilisation on highly skilled migrant women from Sri Lanka, India and Malaysia.

Using in-depth interview techniques, I examined how highly skilled migrant women from non-English-speaking backgrounds are navigating the labour market barriers, and integrating into the Australian labour force.

My study shows that many highly skilled women fail to find a job that matches their skill levels. They face double disadvantage, high rates of discrimination and exclusion in the Australian labour market upon settlement.

Consequently, they tumble down the occupational ladder into employment with lower salaries and less prestige compared with their previous employment in their home countries.

Devaluation of skills

The accounts of the women in my study reveal that skill misrecognition, biased recruitment systems, and cultural and gender stereotypes relating to NESB skilled migrants result in fewer opportunities for them upon settlement. Devaluation of migrants’ skills leads to deskilling, loss of confidence and loss of autonomy.

Identifying and addressing labour market barriers will contribute to more effective labour force participation of highly skilled migrants.

Australian employers can create a fairer labour market by first introducing unbiased recruiting mechanisms and creating welcoming workplaces, and, second, introducing effective diversity and inclusion strategies to value and recognise skills, experiences and qualifications obtained elsewhere.

Then, they should focus on subjective experiences of skilled migrants, and create robust mechanisms to recognise their everyday cultural exchange.

Lastly, they could provide essential soft-skills training for highly skilled migrants to learn more about Australian work culture, people, and the values that are essential to thrive in the workplace and beyond.

This article was published by Lens.