More foreigners could be let into the country under a push to plug severe workforce shortages from a peak business lobby.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry warns that the international travel ban has “exacerbated” the skills gaps and inability to attract appropriate workers.
They include chefs, engineers, medical technicians, regional cafe and restaurant managers, mechanics, including heavy vehicle diesel mechanics, and IT specialists.
Chamber director Jenny Lamber told a parliamentary committee investigating skilled migration on Wednesday that skilled migrants were a “very important” component in the COVID-19 recovery.
“We’ve got to look very hard at expanding the list of priority occupations that have access to exemptions,” Ms Lambert said.
“At the moment there is no way you can bring a chef in from overseas.
“I would be exceptionally surprised if there were many, if any, chefs who are qualified sitting unemployed.”
Ms Lambert said about 14 occupations were eligible for an exemption to allow workers to enter Australia; however, there were delays and the “huge issue” of hotel quarantine caps.
One in two businesses in NSW reported skill shortages, while one in three in Western Australia said skill shortages were the largest barrier to growth.
Regional areas also reported shortages, with the pandemic hitting productivity in the agriculture and mining industries hard.
“There’s a lot of discontent in terms of the miners,” Ms Lambert said.
“Not being able to get chefs actually influences where people go to work.”
However, she rejected claims that foreigners were taking jobs of locals stuck on the ballooned unemployment list.
“The best thing you can do for Australian workers is get some of these skill shortages,” Ms Lambert said.
“You’ve got to make sure that you can access the skills, to ensure you are growing the jobs for the people who are unemployed.”
She acknowledged the “huge issues” regarding hotel quarantine and the number of Australians wanting to return to the country and proposed that the government consider prioritising entry for people from countries that had managed the coronavirus well.
Ms Lambert said it was also important that skilled visa holders currently in Australia were given a path to permanent residency to give businesses and workers certainty the shortages would not worsen.