Many Australians have met migrants working in occupations far below their skills level: the dentist working as a cleaner; the former university lecturer driving a taxi.
But the tide appears to be turning for at least some of Australia’s skilled migrants, with new research showing that those arriving with tertiary qualifications in the past five years are twice as likely to work in their field as those who arrived more than 15 years ago.
Nearly 40 per cent of migrants who came after 2010 and already had tertiary qualifications are working in their field, compared with 20 per cent of those who arrived before 2001, according to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
“If you compare Canada and Australia in terms of skilled migration 15 years ago … about 60 per cent [of skilled migrants] were employed in six months,” she said.
“With Australia’s policy changes we’ve moved to 83 per cent within six months. Canada’s stayed pretty much the same.”
However, the gains for migrants attaining tertiary qualifications after arrival – mostly international students – have not been evenly distributed, Professor Hawthorne said.
For example, her own research shows that less than 10 per cent of recently-arrived migrants with degrees in business or commerce were employed in their field, compared with nearly 30 per cent for engineering, 57 per cent for medicine and 66 per cent for nursing.
Sisters Andrea and Audrey Kraal, who came to Australia from Malaysia as international students, had very different experiences in the graduate job market.
Andrea, who came to Australia in 2012 and completed a bachelor of mechanical engineering at UNSW, secured full-time employment even before she had graduated.
“In my second year [of studying in Australia] I got a part-time job at my current company as a mechanical engineer, and that’s how I got in,” Andrea said. “I was really lucky.”
By contrast, Audrey, who finished studying in 2009 and holds a bachelor in business and masters in accounting at UTS, needed months to find relevant work.
“It was really hard … There’s a lot of accountants out there. You’re competing with people who have more experience,” Audrey said.
Many accounting, business and IT graduates would have had similar experiences because these fields were oversupplied, Professor Hawthorne said. The problem was compounded by “shonky operators” in the private sector churning out students with very poor training, she said.
The government has since changed its policy so only bachelor or higher degree graduates are eligible for post-study work visas.
Australia imported skills to reduce the pressure under-investment in local skills creation, said UTS professor of sociology Andrew Jakubowicz.
And yet “historically … Australia has wasted a lot of the skills of its migrants,” he said.
Seven in 10 migrants who arrived after 2010 have tertiary qualifications, compared with four in 10 of those who arrived before 2001, ABS figures show.
“We pick the cream of the crop,” Jock Collins, professor of social economics at UTS Business School, said.
Immigrants are increasingly selected for their university qualifications but “in too many cases prospective employers do not recognise these qualifications once they are in Australia.”
“The cliche of medical professionals, PhDs and other highly educated immigrants driving cabs for a living or getting jobs as unskilled labourers is, sadly, very true today,” Professor Collins said.
Recently-arrived migrants make up 5 per cent of Australia’s tertiary-qualified workforce but 12 per cent of labourers, according to ABS figures.
The same research shows recently-arrived migrants workers are nearly twice as likely as Australian-born workers to have a university degree.
“This is a form of market failure,” Professor Collins said.
It hurts migrants’ occupational mobility and makes the Australian economy less productive and innovative, and yet it is immigrants who often get blamed for economic problems, he said.
Even migrants who tried to upgrade their skills or have their overseas qualification recognised faced hurdles because they often had to take up unskilled work while in training, said Stephen Castles, Research Chair in Sociology at the University of Sydney.
“Later on it’s very hard for them then to get a job that matches that qualification because they were already doing unskilled work,” Professor Castles said.
“The same goes for international students … who may have a well-recognised bachelors and come here for a masters or PhD, but while they’re studying, they’re doing unskilled work.”
However, Professor Hawthorne said Australia’s skilled migration program was the envy of other advanced economies.
“In world terms, Australia has exceptional outcomes,” Professor Hawthorne said.