The government changed its skilled working visa program earlier this year to incentivise firms to hire locally. But is it still worthwhile searching for accountants from overseas?
In March this year, the government completely axed its Temporary Work (Skilled) visa, more popularly known as the 457 visa and replaced it with the new Temporary Skill Shortage (TSS) visa. When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the changes almost a year earlier, he said the immigration system must ensure that Australian jobs are filled by Australians whenever possible.
“We always will be an immigration nation, but we must ensure that the foundation of that success is maintained and the foundation is that our migration system is seen to work in the national interest,” Mr Turnbull said at that time. “And that foreign workers are brought into Australia in order to fill critical skill gaps and not brought in simply because an employer finds it easier to recruit a foreign worker than go to the trouble of hiring an Australian.”
According to Dominic Bareham, a director of global recruiter Morgan McKinley, the policy has had the desired effect the government was hoping for, at least within the accounting and finance sectors.
“I’ve found that there’s a high demand for people within accounting and finance, but that has been mainly for domestic accountants,” Mr Bareham says. “I do find there’s potential for people to move internationally and attain sponsorship for key critical roles.
“But the key preference, especially from the larger corporates, is to have somebody from the local market and, I think that is driven by initiatives that the government has put in place with the likes of the visa changes and the general view to have some protection around roles that are available for Australians.”
Despite the widespread changes - there’s plenty of opportunity for firms and accountants who play by the rules and know where to look.
Assessing eligibility to work in Australia
Eligible occupations under TSS is more limited, and now fall into one of two categories: the ShortTerm Skilled Occupations List (STSOL) and the Medium-Term and Long-Term Strategic Skills List (MLTSSL).
Accountants fall under the MLTSSL, meaning they can stay for four years and apply for permanent residency in the future, notes Mr Bareham.
However, he also points out that accountants wanting permanent residency will have to wait three years into their TSS visa to apply, up from two years previously.
However, the TSS visa for accountants excludes any of the following positions:
- Clerical, bookkeeper and accounting clerk positions
- Positions in businesses that have an annual turnover of less than $1 million
- Positions in businesses that have fewer than five employees
From 457 to TSS
Despite the visa changes, Mr Bareham thinks hiring accountants from overseas can still be a viable long-term option for firms, as they are still on the medium-term stream, meaning potential applicants can have direct access to a four-year visa and access to permanent residency after three years.
“With the visa changes last year, a number of professions were removed from or taken to the short-term list, which is a two-year visa and then another two-year visa with no route to permanent residency,” Mr Bareham said. “But accountants are on the longer-term list.”
Some of the key things to consider when hiring overseas, according to Mr Bareham, is a potential worker’s ability to complete all their interviews, either via telephone or video-conferencing.
In addition, he says firms need to consider the time frame in actually gaining sponsorship, which varies depending on the season and timing with the government.
“As you start to get into more senior roles, it’s quite commonplace for people to be on three-months’ notice in Europe and Asia, which is very uncommon in Australia. Most people are still on a one-month’s notice even when they’re in senior roles unless they are C-suite,” Mr Bareham says.
Regarding the contract recruitment market, Mr Bareham says it’s difficult for firms to source the right talent in the local market that’s ready and available to work on three or six-month contract roles. “Local people are normally in permanent roles, meaning there’s an opportunity for the chartered firms to hire overseas accountants on a contract basis for their move internationally,” he says.
“Then they get the opportunity to see how that individual performs before potentially offering them to stay longer, whether that be a longer-term contract or sponsorship. I think the chartered firms have recognised this and do provide it as an option now.”
Applying for a TSS visa
Applicants will need a sponsor in order to attain visa, and the arrangement must be made prior to arriving in Australia. This means a foreign national can’t enter Australia, look for work, then apply for the visa.
Once an applicant finds a sponsoring employer, they will have to then:
- prove there is no local capacity to fill the position
- pass a non-discriminatory test to ascertain they are not discriminating against the local workforce
- guarantee to pay the Australian marketplace rate of pay, to make sure they are not undercutting local businesses and exploiting employees with the TSS visa.
In addition, applicants also need to consult with a relevant assessing authority to obtain a valid skills assessment. For accountants, that would be a relevant industry body such as the Institute of Public Accountants.
On top of that, skilled workers from overseas need to fulfil these general MLTSSL visa requirements:
- An IELTS (or equivalent test) score of 6, with a minimum score of 5 in each test component, is required
- Penal clearances must be provided by applicants
- Employers must pass a non-discriminatory workforce test
- Employers must make a contribution to the Skilling Australians Fund ($1,200 per year for small businesses or $1,800 per year for other businesses)
Mr Bareham says most of the overseas accountants come from English-speaking countries – mainly Ireland and the UK. As for why that is the case, he thinks the accountancy qualification in those countries is more highly regarded than other locations. “The training that qualified accountants go through is seen as a tougher process and more in line with the requirements of the Australian market,” he says.
Another important factor is gaining the required English proficiency to attain the TSS visa for those from non-English speaking countries. For a successful General Skilled Migration qualifications assessment through the Institute of Public Accountants, the required score through the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) Academic test is 7.0 (on a scale from 1.0 to 9.0) across listening, reading, writing and speaking.
In addition, applicants must have an educational qualification (with a major in accounting or a relevant field) assessed as comparable, in both content and standards, to an Australian bachelor’s degree.
This would’ve counted out someone like Olga Serova, who didn’t speak English when she moved to Australia in 1999 but had worked for many years as a bookkeeper and an accountant in her native Russia. Since moving to Australia, Ms Serova found work in accounting roles spanning a variety of industries, including construction and education, and currently works as a business manager for Immigration Solutions Lawyers in Sydney.
In 2002, she attained a Certificate IV in accounting from NSW TAFE, and was working towards an Advanced Diploma. “I did half of an Advanced Diploma and I stopped because it was really hard to me to work full-time, study and raise a family at the same time,” Ms Serova says.
Even though she didn’t complete her Advanced Diploma, Ms Serova knows many colleagues who completed formal studies in Russia before arriving in Australia and are having a good career, regardless of whether they came to Australia through a skilled migration visa. “If you have a diploma or if you have a degree, you’re well-qualified, so your knowledge is really good,” she says.
Ms Serova thought cultural differences weren’t much of a factor for her when she made the transition to working in accounting Australia. “It’s not really a big problem to convert from the Russian system to the Australian system,” she reflects. “Technically, I was fine with the different kinds of software and systems. Even if the software is different, you still know debit, credit and balance.”
As for cost considerations, Ms Serova says that if you already have an equivalent qualification from overseas, you don’t need to do much extra to make the transition to working in Australia.
“If you want to become more qualified, it’s up to you. You can study part-time, you can study full-time. It really depends on what you want to do with your career,” she says. “If you’re already qualified overseas, Australia accepts qualifications from many countries around the world, so if you want to do anything more, you can still do it. It’s not a big issue.”