457 visa overhaul won’t solve PR skills shortage

The government’s changes to Australia’s 457 visa program have created needless uncertainty, argues Red Agency Sydney’s Jackie Crossman, and could turn into a dangerous game of semantics.

The sudden announcement of the abolition of the 457 visa program will reverberate through the PR world on every level – individual, agency and industry, though the extent of the impact is still unclear, given uncertainties and ambiguities around the government’s lightning bolt decree.

Jackie Crossman (R) with Red Agency CEO James Wright (L)

Whether a non-Australian citizen will still be able to work as a PR in Australia on a reincarnated-visa-formerly-known-as-457 might well come down to semantics: the difference between four little words – ‘professional’ and ‘manager’; ‘agency’ and ‘in-house’.

So, what’s in a name? Potentially a career, livelihood and country of residence for some PR practitioners, given the possible fallout from the federal government’s anomalous and swift overhaul of 457 visas.

If you’re classified a ‘PR Professional’ in an ‘agency’ role, you’ll be relatively sweet – albeit reduced from four to two-year visa terms – but still with the additional opportunity to apply for permanent residency down the track, although with more hoop-jumping and box-ticking required than ever before.

If, on the other hand, you’re deemed a ‘PR Manager’ because you’re in an ‘in-house’ role, you’re essentially screwed, cut from the list of occupations eligible for a visa altogether.

That simple distinction between being a ‘professional’ agency PR or in-house insider ‘manager’ will be the difference between being a visa-carrying worker on the way to the office – or an unemployed PR on the way to the airport.

Compounding the uncertainty and ensuring it will linger into the new financial year is the note buried in the detail that from 1 July 2017, there could be “possible additional adjustments to eligible occupation lists”.

Might that see in-house PR ‘Managers’ recognised the same way as their ‘Professional’ agency cousins, able to apply for the new category visa when the government realises and rectifies the anomaly?

Or might it mean agency staff join the ‘in-housers’ in the no-visa zone in the name of consistent treatment for PRs?

Visa changes won’t fix skills shortage
At Red Agency, we always hire the best people for the role, ideally Australians because local talent brings a multitude of business benefits to an agency: a ready-made understanding of the market, the media, the culture and business and political landscapes.

Put simply, locals have a head start in building on-the-ground contacts and networks because they’re here.

But the fact is, there is a shortage of PR graduates across the board to fill roles in our industry. That means we have needed to recruit overseas talent to fill the skills gap.

Currently around 10% of our employees are sponsored on 457 visas. Three long-term employees who were previously on 457 visas now have permanent residence status or have become Australian citizens including our CEO James Wright who joined Red Agency from Grayling in the UK.

One in two candidates – 50% – interviewing for positions at Red are not Australian citizens. That’s not due to lack of local interest, but lack of local skills.

The shortage of qualified local talent needs to be addressed in the medium-to-long term, but the solution in the meantime isn’t to cut the people who are filling otherwise unfillable roles.

Our industry imports not only plug a key gap; because they generally come in at mid-to-senior level roles with three-plus years experience, they fill another valuable role too: developing the skills and expertise of local agency talent they work with coming through in entry-level roles.

Greater uncertainty means less job-hopping
Another side effect of the changes and uncertainty on the industry could well be a reduction in job-hopping by visa-carrying, agency-employed PRs.

Until now, the skills shortage has meant job opportunities were plentiful for experienced practitioners and it was not difficult for visa holders to transfer their visa to another eligible employer.

Now, with new applicants only eligible for more difficult-to-attain two-year visas, we may well see a slow-down in employee movement between agencies.

We will likely also see greater employee-agency loyalty and longevity because applicants will need their agency’s support for their more onerous permanent residency application down the track.

The winner out of that greater employee tenure with single agencies will be clients, who will reap the benefit of the intellectual capital and expertise invested in their business by PR pros who remain working on their accounts for longer.

Given the uncertainty and confusion the sudden 457 visa about-turn has created, perhaps the Turnbull government would have done well to seek the expertise of a PR pro, whether with a relevant visa or citizenship in hand, but with good counsel in their head, to deliver the transformation message with clarity, rather than create concern, confusion and uncertainty.

Jackie Crossman is the principal of Red Agency Sydney



Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.