x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Australian outback attracting a new wave of skilled Irish emigrants

With unemployment running at close to 15% in Ireland, and local wages a fraction of those now on offer in Australia to those with skills such as engineers and surveyors, more and more people are moving south.

DUBLIN // A hundred men in their 20s and 30s filled a conference room at a Dublin hotel last week to hear a migration agent describe the personal fortunes waiting to be made a world away in the booming mining towns of the Australian outback.

With unemployment running at close to 15 per cent in Ireland, and local wages a fraction of those now on offer in Australia, it appeared to be an easy sell.

"I want to go and make money, not just get by," said David Varley, 29, who had been laid off a few weeks earlier from his job as a railway-signals engineer. "A friend just got a job at a mine and she said they're looking for engineers, though I'm not sure what kind."

His friend had lost her job as a quantity surveyor and was thinking of applying for unemployment benefits when she turned to the internet and immediately saw lots of Australian job advertisements. Six months later, she was working at a mine there.

"Of course I'd rather stay at home with my friends and family, but if you have to go, you have to go," Mr Varley said. "The amount of people who've left my town to work abroad is phenomenal."

The new migrants are continuing an old tradition. The Irish and English were among Australia's first settlers, shipped to the continent as convict labour starting in the late 18th century. Australia's 1851-1861 Gold Rush lured hundreds of thousands more from the British Isles and they continued to stream in, seeking their fortunes in gold mines, until the early 20th century.

Declan Clune, a migration agent of the international firm Visa First, told the men at the Dublin meeting that carpenters could earn AUS$90,000 (Dh352,000) a year and engineers and surveyors up to $200,000 (Dh782,000).

"There are a huge number of highly skilled people leaving. And they're not coming back," Mr Clune said.

"We have the skilled educated population that Australia needs. Canada may be closer, but all the work is in Australia. And Australia is the place people want to go."

In Australia, though, immigration agents discover not all Europeans are cut out to work in an open-cut mine under a baking sun and live in remote mining towns such as Karratha, where workers sleep in camps built from converted shipping containers.

James Maund, the general manager of the recruitment firm Manpower Australia, said: "Potentially there are big fat pay packets for some people and, yes, the skies are sunny - sometimes too sunny - but it will be a bit different for people from Dublin to live in 40°C heat in Karratha."

Australia's overseas recruitment drive has so far focused on skilled workers, ranging from mine engineers and geologists to boilermakers and electricians.

Its demand for these skills has been so great, mine labour is now scarce worldwide. Yet the labour shortage persists.

Some employers in Australia blame red tape, saying the process of issuing short-term work permits for skilled labour, known as 457 visas, is too costly and should be speeded up.

The government imposes no limit on the number of 457 visas that can be issued, but it demands that employers show they cannot first find or train Australians for the jobs.

Foreign workers must also have a high level of proficiency in English, a tough condition for many Asians.