Temporary migration and skills formation in the trades: a provisional assessment.

Author:Toner, Phillip
Position:Statistical table - Report


There are only two ways for a nation to secure an adequate supply of skilled workers: domestic skill formation and immigration. Reflecting a major trend in the international sourcing of skilled labour (1) Australia has significantly increased its reliance on temporary flows of business persons and skilled workers through the Temporary Business Entry (TBE) Program. There are two classes within this program, the business short-stay (456) visa and the business long-stay (457) visa. It is only people who come in on the latter visa who may be employed in Australia, and then only in occupations designated by their Australian employer sponsor. Temporary entrants on 457 visas may be transferred internally by multinational businesses from overseas branches or sponsored as new employees. A total of 58,050 such employees were visaed under the business long-stay primary (457) visa in 2007-08, an increase of 24 per cent in comparison to 2006-07. (2)

The rationale for the expansion of the 457 visa is to faciltate relatively rapid deployment of overseas workers into Australian businesses where labour shortages exist. To this end, temporary migration flows under this visa are uncapped and have grown very rapidly (see Table 1 below). This increased reliance on flows of temporary skilled workers to meet labour shortages has led Hugo to question whether these temporary labour flows are 'a substitute for the reform of, and increase of investment in, education and training by government and employers?' (3)

Table 1: Subclass 457 visa grants to primary applicants (excluding Independent Executives) between 1 July 2004 and 31 March 2008 where the nominated occupation is ASCO Major Group 4, Tradespersons and related workers, by client location (1) Financial year Client location Total of visa grant Onshore Offshore 2004-05 1,330 2,040 3,370 2005-06 1,960 6,470 8,430 2006-07 2,430 6,200 8,640 2007-08 to 31/03/08 2,180 4,710 6,890 Source: Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) 2008 special data service Notes: (1) Client location is recorded at the time the application is lodged. ASCO stands for Australian Standard of Classification of Occupations This paper provides a preliminary assessment of this question in relation to the formation of skills for occupations in trades through the traditional vocational education approach to apprenticeship training.

We examine the potential effects on domestic apprentice training of these changes and the shift toward temporary flows of tradespersons to satisfy skills shortages. The paper concludes that the 457 program has the potential to adversely affect domestic rates of training in the trades. We acknowledge that the framing of appropriate rules and regulations to govern temporary flows of skilled workers remains, to some extent, a work in progress. However, the temporary skilled labour program should be required to support domestic skills formation and national training priorities. If temporary migration in effect operates as a parallel system to supply skilled labour then there are likely to be consequences for the traditional apprenticeship training system.


There are a variety of theoretical literatures that overlap at the point where global migration flows and institutionalised processes of complex industrial skills formation intersect. This is not the place for a comprehensive review of this work, which includes contributions from studies of migration, labour market, management, innovation systems, economic geography and knowledge management. Rather, our question can be restricted to a relatively narrow one within this larger theoretical space. It can be summarised as follows: does a change in institutional arrangements for the supply of skilled human capital affect the operation of established training systems?

Skilled migration can be understood as a system of knowledge transactions. (4) Skilled migrants represent an inflow of human capital, which can add to the stock of knowledge and the supply of skills in firms and industries. (5) However, the absorptive capacity of a firm (6) which employs a skilled migrant worker will determine the extent to which the skills of that worker can be appropriated by the firm and, subsequently, the spillover of the worker's skills to other firms and industries. Such knowledge spillovers occur, for example, through movement of labour between firms or the reverse engineering of products and services by other firms. In turn, the absorptive capacity of firms depends on the social context and broader institutional factors. (7) Migrants take time to acquire local competencies, including English language competence, or to become familiar with work routines and occupational roles and practices that may be different to what they have experienced previously.

Skilled trade and technical workers primarily deploy what Amin and Roberts describe as a 'craft or tasked-based' form of 'knowing in action'. (8) Repetitive and routinised tasks and associated problem solving are the key elements of this form of knowing in action. These are linked via the process of learning by doing to incremental innovation in work practices and industrial processes. (9) The reproduction of this form of knowing is partly theoretical (classroom) and partly practical (workplace), and has its own set of organisational and institutional arrangements (the apprenticeship system). These arrangements can be understood as part of the institutional endowments that shape local work contexts and hence the processes of skills reproduction and knowledge transfer. (10) It is at the local level that many of these institutional arrangements are articulated, including the framework for the actual delivery of training. (11)

Knowledge transfer in craft or task-based knowing occurs largely through practical demonstration, repetition and routines, and flows from master to apprentice. (12) An important part of this process is the transfer of the tacit knowledge that provides the background to skills deployment and practiced expertise. (13) in contrast to codified knowledge, such as rules of grammar or mathematical theorems, tacit knowledge can only be transmitted via close one-to-one training and developed through personal experience. Craft based tacit skills in particular are the product of learnt motor skills and problem solving capacity arising from learning by doing. Examples of tacit skills include knowing through feel the amount of torque that can...

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