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The refugees who could solve Australia’s tech skills crisis

Sarya, a software engineer who fled Syria in 2012, is one of the first refugees to secure work at an Australian tech company under a new government pilot program designed to connect skilled refugees with local companies hungry for talent amid a worsening labour crisis. 

As companies increasingly despair about the growing skills shortage hitting the tech sector, and ponder ways to address it, including pay rises of up to 20 per cent, Sarya’s imminent arrival at Adelaide-based Aligent Consulting, represents an example of solving two problems in one move. 

The new program, launched in July this year, opened a pathway for 100 skilled refugees and their families to migrate to Australia over the next two years. The scheme helps refugees and potential employers work around the lack of documentation and proof of work experience often faced by those fleeing danger. Tech companies have rushed to sign up, including Aligent, an e-commerce consulting business, which hired Sarya after a competitive round of interviews. 

“As a refugee without legal rights to work or residency in a country my skills were completely invisible, even though I am a full-stack engineer,” says Sarya, who is currently in Jordan and requested to be identified by her first name only. Sarya, a software engineer who fled Syria in 2012, is one of the first refugees to secure work in Australia, under the new pilot program. 

“It was very hard to be turned down again and again even though I had the skills and was capable.” The program is designed to offer businesses like Aligent direct access to skilled candidates who have often been excluded from traditional skilled migration pathways, but are capable of performing skills tests or interviewing for high-quality roles.

“We were blown away by the quality of the candidates,” says Jonathan Day, founder and managing director of Aligent Consulting, who has now hired three engineers through the pilot. “There’s a triple hit to staffing at the moment with closed borders to skilled migrants, less skilled graduates and the huge demand from business.” As it stands, there are two ways to migrate to Australia. People either come through on humanitarian grounds, which recognises that people may be missing documents. Or they come via the skilled migration pathway, which requires a range of qualifications and certifications. 

“Lack of documentation is the biggest barrier for refugees,” says Sathya Gnanakaran, director of Australia and New Zealand for Talent Beyond Boundaries, the organisation running the government’s “Skilled Refugee Pilot”. She is responsible for connecting companies to their 25,000-strong database of skilled refugees across the world. 

“When people flee a war situation they’re not thinking, ‘I’d better get my degree certificate or my employment references or even my birth certificate’, and that means these skilled workers can’t get a foot in the door on a skilled migration pathway.” Talent Beyond Boundaries founders John Cameron, Mary Louise Cohen and Bruce Cohen saw the growing demand from global business for skilled workers and understood that vast swathes of refugees were actually trained in those disciplines. The team began pitching to Peter Dutton’s Home Affairs department in 2016, stressing the business need for trained workers and highlighting problems with accessing that refugee talent pool.

“Immigration lawyers have been moving hundreds of people for big corporates around the world for years, but no one had really thought of refugees as a talent pool that could fill skills shortages,” Ms Gnanakaran says. Dutton’s department subsequently established a labour agreement, essentially a contract with the Department of Home Affairs, to fast track overseas workers who were also refugees who couldn’t be found locally. 

Tech companies need to be vetted and endorsed as appropriate employers for the program, and Aligent was first introduced to Sarya at the start of 2020. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Information Technology and Engineering from Damascus University, but fled Syria with her family as the war worsened in 2012. Since that time she has lived with her husband, 19-year-old son and 3-year-old twins in limbo in the Jordanian capital, Amman. As an experienced engineer, Sarya assumed it wouldn’t be difficult to find work, but as a Syrian refugee she didn’t have legal working status.

“I was turned down for jobs again and again, and I thought there was no hope for anything stable or long-term because I was in a refugee situation, worried I would be sent back to Syria,” Sarya says. She says she saw an advertisement for Talent Beyond Boundaries on Facebook and made a profile. Within weeks the organisation was helping her build her resume and prepare for English-speaking interviews with global technology companies. 

“Getting this job will change my life and the life of my family. It is difficult to express how much it has made a difference,” she says. In a twist of fate, Sarya’s brother managed to move to Melbourne as a lawyer in 2020. “I honestly never thought I would see him again,” she says. “After getting this job I can be reunited with him again.”

The pilot program has been gaining traction among tech companies. When the Afghan government fell to the Taliban this year, Talent Beyond Boundaries received a wave of calls from Australian employers asking how they could hire skilled Afghans and bring them to the country. ASX-listed fintech Iress, which develops financial services software, is another verified company and has already hired three software engineers from Syria. Its chief executive, Andrew Walsh, says it plans to hire more through the program. 

“The competition for talent in the technology industry in Australia, and globally, is intense,” Walsh says. “We cast a wide net locally when looking for people to join our team, but through the TBB program we’ve been able to include in that net an even wider pool of high-quality potential candidates who go through the same recruitment and selection process as any other candidate would. “We see many benefits to this approach. We get access to great people, and we’re able to help displaced people through access to meaningful work and a new start in life.” 

[Source: article by Jessica Sier, Australian Financial Review, 9th November 2021]

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