Migrants in Australia – an untapped potential

Words by Rohanti, 29 SA 

This piece was a finalist of the Youth Summit Creative Competition 2022.

According to the 2020 statistics published by ABS, 30% of the Australian population were born overseas and an estimated 61.2% of this population are aged between 18 and 34 years. That’s 4.65 million migrants.[1] [2]

On average, these migrants are more likely to hold post-secondary qualifications than Australian-born people and are facilitators of key foreign trade and investment relationships.[3] Despite this, several organisation-led studies have shown a large skill mismatch among this population.

The issue is actually bigger than commonly thought. A 2019 report by the University of Adelaide suggested that 60% of migrants were not working in a nominated occupation, over-qualified for their current job, or working less than desired hours.[4]

Furthermore, research indicates that not all migrants face the same conditions. Recent data shows that migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds tend to have poorer employment outcomes compared to migrants from countries where English is the primary language.

In March 2021, Engineers Australia published a detailed report on Australia’s skilled migration programme with a focus on engineers. This report brought to light that of the top 10 countries which collectively deliver 67.1% of all migrant engineers, all have higher unemployment rates than Australian-born engineers. Among these, however, those from Iran, India, China, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have significantly higher unemployment rates compared to those from England and South Africa, who were within only one percentage point of the Australian-born rate.[5]

Even more concerningly, the gap between migrant and Australian-born unemployment has widened for those who arrived after 2012 compared to those who arrived prior to this year.5 Interestingly, this is in the context of 16% of individuals from non-English speaking countries holding a postgraduate degree compared to only 6% of the Australian-born.[6]

The economic impact of such a skill mismatch is substantial. A 2019 report published by Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, estimated that matching workers from non-English speaking countries to jobs aligned with their actual level of education could generate an economic output of a whopping $6 billion per annum.6 This is in addition to the estimated $2 billion that would be generated by improved matching of workers from English-speaking countries.[6]

But migrants have so much more to offer than just wage generation – they bring cultural experiences, unique perspectives and can be assets in international customer relationships.

A series of reports on diversity by McKinsey & Company identified the several benefits of cultural diversity in business.7,8 The data in these reports suggest that companies in the top quartile for ethical/cultural diversity were 33% more likely to outperform lower-quartile companies on profitability.7

Conversely, the fourth-quartile companies (with poor ethnic diversity) were 29% more likely to underperform on profitability compared to the companies belonging to the other quartiles.[7] So not only does ethnic/cultural diversity promote good business, but the lack thereof can also wound business!

This relationship was thought to be due to diverse companies being able to improve customer orientation, attract top talent, enable better decision-making, and achieve higher employee satisfaction.[7] 

But why does the skills gap exist? I pored over the literature and interviewed representatives of prominent Australian businesses to understand the reasons behind the reluctance to hire immigrants. From my research, I identified three key reasons why migrants and businesses were missing out on the opportunity to work together[4]:

  1. Businesses see Australian employment experience as a validation of overseas-gained skills and the lack of local experience is considered risky.
  2. Businesses have negative assumptions about the English proficiency of migrant candidates.
  3. The current legal framework around hiring a migrant is complex – businesses need to navigate around several aspects of different visas, and after investing the resources in this process, if the hired applicant is not a good fit in the role, the process of letting them go is also complicated.

The above reasons appear to be in order of priority.

I relate this to my own experience in Australia. As someone who spent most of her life in New Zealand, speaks English at a native level but went to medical school in India, I too struggled to get into the Australian workforce. Despite completing the required medical licensing exams, having extensive research experience and academic achievements during medical school, and highlighting on my cover letters that I was an NZ citizen, I barely received an invitation to an interview. With my English proficiency and residency status I should have been the ideal skilled migrant and yet, it appeared that I was not.

Today, I can happily say that I am in a specialist training programme in the largest tertiary hospital in South Australia, but this did not come easy. I clawed my way into the healthcare system through working remotely as a medical writer on a freelance website and used that experience to land a role related to the medical field in a pharmaceutical company in Australia. And as part of this job, I met with doctors to share medical research, one of whom happened to be on the recruitment team for the hospital I am currently employed in. He had invited me to apply to a vacancy as he was impressed with my knowledge and skills.

While this story might be inspiring to some, it shouldn’t be this hard!

Businesses are missing out on the wealth of unique talent that immigrants bring to Australia and even though we have all this data on why it is important to have an ethnically and culturally diverse team, we continue to focus on our unfounded assumptions as reasons to not hire them.

Immigrants in Australia belong here, and it is time that we took up more space in the workforce, through equal opportunities and recognition. This is up to us, as the youth of this country, to achieve.


Rohanti is the co-founder of an initiative called Werk It.

Werk It is a remote work platform that exclusively connects Australian businesses to skilled migrants in Australia. Through Werk It, businesses will be able to find diverse talent and engage with them on projects through a variety of contract options, such as one-off assignments and hourly jobs. All job searchers on Werk It will be vetted on their qualifications and their English language proficiency, making it easier for businesses to identify preferred talent quicker. Werk It enables migrants to showcase their skills and creates opportunities to gain Australian experience without some of the major restraints of conventional job searches, such as lengthy interview processes and trial periods. With Werk It, migrants will be able to put their existing skills into practice and earn valuable feedback from verified Australian businesses which they can use to secure further opportunities both on and off the platform.

Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/werkit_aus/

LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/company/werkitaustralia


[1] Migration, Australia, 2019-20 financial year. Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2021). Retrieved 14 April 2022, from https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/population/migration-australia/latest-release#key-statistics

[2] Australian Demographic Statistics, Jun 2018. (2018). Retrieved 29 April 2022, from https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/featurearticlesbyCatalogue/7A40A407211F35F4CA257A2200120EAA

[3] Committee for Economic Development of Australia. (2021). A good match: optimising Australia’s permanent skilled migration. Retrieved from https://apo.org.au/node/311580

[4] South Australian Centre for Economic Studies University of Adelaide. (2019). Skilled Migration to South Australia 2010-2014: profile and employment outcomes of recent permanent and temporary migrants. Adelaide. Retrieved from https://www.adelaide.edu.au/saces/ua/media/451/saces-economic-issues-52.pdf

[5] Engineers Australia. (2021). Australia’s skilled migration program Submission for Joint Standing Committee on Migration inquiry. Retrieved from https://www.engineersaustralia.org.au/sites/default/files/Australia’s%20skilled%20migration%20program%20(Cth%2C%20March%202021).pdf

[6] Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre. (2019). Finding A Place To Call Home; Immigration in Australia. Retrieved from https://bcec.edu.au/assets/2019/10/BCEC-Finding-a-Place-to-Call-Home.pdf

[7] McKinsey & Company. (2018). Delivering through diversity. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/delivering-through-diversity

[8] McKinsey & Company. (2020). Diversity wins: How inclusion matters. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters


Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc
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