Billion-dollar benefit: new report identifies five ways to harness untapped skilled workforce

Settlement Services International (SSI)

Skilled migrants and refugees already living in Australia are an overlooked solution to Australia’s wide-reaching skills shortages, which if harnessed could inject billions of dollars into the economy, according to a new report.

The Billion Dollar Benefit: A roadmap for unleashing the economic potential of refugees and migrants report was released on World Refugee Day by non-profit Settlement Services International (SSI), outlines key barriers that limit the workforce potential of migrants and refugees and recommends five solutions to unleash their talent by 2025.

The report draws on consultation with more than 50 experts across five sectors and has been endorsed by more than 35 major organisations, including The Australian Council of Social Services, IKEA Australia, the Diversity Council of Australia, and the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA).

SSI CEO Violet Roumeliotis said unlike most OECD countries, where migrants tend to be less qualified than the locally born population, the opposite is true in Australia, where one in four permanent skilled migrants are working below their skill level.

“This is costing individuals the chance of meaningful employment, costing employers and also our economy $1.25b in lost wages alone every five years,” she said.

“Practical steps to unleash the potential of this workforce involve fixing the broken skills and qualifications recognition system, strengthening protections for migrant workers, reviewing the right to work for people on temporary visas, scaling innovative cross-sector partnerships, and reforming English language requirements to ensure they are fit-for-purpose.”

Tens of thousands of migrants and refugees living in Australia want to contribute but lack the opportunity. A good example of this is Dr Mohammad Zubair Harooni, a former United Nations HIV Program Specialist.

Since coming to Australia as a refugee, Dr Harooni has been unable to find work in his field, despite having a15-year medical career in his native Afghanistan and a master’s degree in public health from an Australian university.

“Unfortunately, when I moved to Australia, I applied for several jobs and was selected for the interviews. But I experienced challenges because of my lack of Australian work experience. Not having a working background in Australia was likely the reason I was rejected,” Mohammad says.

Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, the Hon Andrew Giles MP said migrants and refugees are one of our nation’s greatest assets and deserved the opportunity to realise their full potential, including through meaningful economic participation.

“Providing sustainable pathways to meaningful employment is key to supporting migrants and refugees to build a sense of belonging and inclusion in Australia,” he said.

“Like any other Australian, refugees and migrants deserve the opportunity to use their professional skills, experience and qualifications to build lives and livelihoods in Australia that are productive and fulfilling.”

IKEA is one of several employers actively tapping into this cohort of workers. In partnership with refugee inclusion specialists Community Corporate, IKEA is evolving its pilot three-year program to a permanent pillar of recruitment – providing refugees and asylum seekers from all backgrounds with secure employment opportunities.

Harriet Pope, IKEA Refugee Workforce Inclusion Leader, said “The pilot program has proved the mutual benefits of supporting refugees to enter the Australian workforce are significant, including pride in an inclusive culture, greater cross-cultural competence and new mentorship skills for IKEA co-workers. Shared languages and deeper cultural connections are also creating a better customer experience, and we have access to a new talent pipeline of adaptable, resilient, and loyal co-workers in what has been a challenging labour market.”

The Billion Dollar Benefit: A roadmap for unleashing the economic potential of refugees and migrants report was developed in partnership with the Federation of Ethnic Communities Australia (FECCA), The Settlement Council of Australia (SCOA) and Community Corporate.

Additional case studies:

Mohsen Shahsavardeh When Mohsen Shahsavarzdeh finally arrived in Australia after three year’s detention on Christmas Island, his first priority was to get a job. Despite being highly educated in the medical field, with experience in the banking sector, Mohsen struggled to find employment due to his limited English language proficiency, visa status, lack of local networks. After deciding to retrain, he enrolled in a Bachelor of Business. Mohsen was in the second year of his degree when he landed a job with ANZ bank – kick starting his new career. Since then, he struck out on his own, setting himself up as an independent mortgage broker in the Northwestern Sydney area.

Salwa Afif Razzouk Salwa Afif Razzouk graduated with a bachelor’s degree in law and master’s in public management shortly before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Arriving in Australia as a refugee in 2022, Salwa immediately began applying for jobs. She faced immense challenges as she had no professional network and limited understanding of the Australian job market. Through the support of SSI, Salwa acquired essential skills, regained her confidence, and accumulated local work experience. She eventually gained a permanent position as an intake admin coordination with SSI’s RESP program, where she now supports other refugees to achieve their employment goals.

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About SSI:

Settlement Services International (SSI) delivers a range of human services that connect individuals, families, and children from diverse backgrounds with opportunities – including settlement support, disability programs, community engagement initiatives and training and employment pathways. At the heart of everything we do is a drive for equality, empathy, and celebration of every individual.

/Public Release.