U.S. Skilled Labor Needed in Australia

April 5, 2012 Updated: April 5, 2012
Rio Tinto's Port Dampier
Rio Tinto's Port Dampier operations in Western Australia's Pilbara region. A mining boom in Australia is creating a skills shortage driving the Australian Government to encourage U.S. skilled workers to Australia. (Amy Coopes/AFP/Getty Images)

Looking to fill a skills shortage in the country’s booming mining industry, the Australian government has announced new measures to encourage skilled American workers to migrate to Australia on temporary work visas.

Australian Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills, Sen. Chris Evans, said that skills needs in the energy, resources and infrastructure sectors were putting a big demand on the existing civil engineering and construction workforce.

“The reality is projections have our workforce going from about 30 or 35,000 currently to perhaps 75,000 or more workers required in those fields” he said in a joint press conference with Australian Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, and U.S. Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich.

Sen. Evans noted the slowdown in the American economy, saying the temporary migration program had already attracted “reasonable numbers of U.S. citizens” but mainly in professional areas.

“There’s been some interest for a while now among U.S. companies and large Australian employers, in attracting some skilled labor from the United States,” he said.

The U.S. Labor Department announced last week that the number of Americans claiming unemployment insurance (UI) had dropped to the lowest level since August 2008. However, the unemployment rate remains high in the United States, at around 8.3 percent.

Ambassador Bleich said the jobless rate was moving in “a positive direction” but there remained many skilled workers, particularly in the construction industry, looking for work in the United States.

“And so it is the perfect fit here, people speaking the same language, mostly, and with skills,” he said.

Currently skilled U.S. workers like licensed plumbers and electricians wanting to work in Australia need to be assessed onshore—a process that can take months between entry and starting work, Minister Bowen said.

“Under the new skills assessment process, U.S. workers will be assessed against Australian regulatory requirements before entering Australia, providing certainty to applicants and employers.”

Evans said that it was remote mining towns, particularly in Western Australia, that were most in need of skilled workers, but noted that workers in the Australian resource industry were “among the best paid workers in the world.”

“So I don’t think attracting people because of the wages will be an issue for us. I think there will be issues about people wanting to travel this far, about working away from home. … That’s a personal decision people have to take,” he said.

The average wage for an electrical trades worker in the United States is around $53,000 a year, according to 2012 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while in Australia electrical, gas and water service workers earn around AU$80,000 ($82,352), the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2011.