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Published 16 August 2012 05:01, Updated 16 August 2012 06:56
Trainer Anita Lamb-Nicholls says many employers won’t return her calls. Glenn Hunt
Five years ago, Tatiana Sanchez was a cleaner in Brisbane. On her last cleaning shift downtown at Mineral House, an office tower that houses a number of state government departments, the 24-year-old Colombian left a note on the desk of a mining engineer who frequently worked late and to whom she had started chatting.
“Hello, I am the cleaner lady, sorry to bother you but I need help,” she wrote. “I am a civil engineer, I am looking for a job as an engineer. Here is my resume, if you can help me send me an email.”
He sent her resume to a colleague at Queensland Rail. That colleague advised her to get her qualifications assessed by industry body Engineers Australia. She did. Three months later, in early 2008, QR sponsored Sanchez for a working visa and offered her a job. Now 30 and a naturalised Australian, Sanchez is an acting team leader of a division that looks after infrastructure maintenance of trains for the southeastern Queensland region.
Sanchez’s tale of chutzpah and success stands out. But she was also lucky. For every Sanchez, there are many other overseas-qualified engineers who cannot find work, in stark contrast to the headlines that scream about the country’s skills shortage.
Greater use of these skilled workers could reduce costs for employers and lessen the need to go overseas, as happened with the much-criticised decision to allow Hancock Prospecting to import 1700 skilled and semi-skilled workers to develop its Roy Hill iron ore project in Western Austrtalia. In the year to June 30, the 68,310 scarce-skill 457 visas granted represented a 42.1 per cent increase on the number granted the previous year.
The problem is acute even in Brisbane, on the doorstep of the resources boom. Arshia Amirghasemi is a 30-year-old Iranian who arrived with his wife in Brisbane in July 2009.
He graduated in 2005 as an electrical engineer and had several years’ experience specialising in instrument controls for the downstream petrochemical industry. Straight after arriving, he enrolled in a Master’s in project management at Queensland University. Since graduating in December, he has applied for about 100 jobs. Despite graduating top of his class, he has not had any success.
His situation is not unique, he says.
“I have lots of friends who because they couldn’t find jobs, started studying,” he says. “They are now all doing their PhDs. They might have had 10 years’ work experience in Iran or Dubai but they are still not very successful here. They couldn’t secure a position in any organisation for themselves.”
Amirghasemi is not alone. In fact, he is one of a crowd of more than 100 who turns up to a monthly support group for unemployed foreign engineers in Brisbane, where they share stories and hear advice from recruiters and people in the industry about how to find work.
The group’s Iraq-born founder, Haider Yousif, says the meetings, which require attendees to register in advance, are always booked out.
“It’s difficult to find a job in Australia as an engineer,” says Yousif, who arrived 20 years ago and now works for US-based firm KBR. “Everywhere these guys go, they are told, ‘Ah, you’re lacking Australian experience’. We understand some companies ask for Australian standards, which is possible to be overcome by study or by attending a course, but the work itself?”
Admittedly, the market for engineers has come off the boil from several years ago, when even a state-owned department such as QR was willing to sponsor a foreigner like Sanchez for a visa. Now some mining projects in Queensland are closing. Yet engineers from overseas are still being sponsored – almost one-quarter of last year’s scarce-skill visas went to UK citizens – leaving open the possibility that race prevents some engineers already here from finding work.
Anita Lamb-Nicholls runs a course at the Brisbane North Institute of TAFE teaching workplace English and culture to prepare foreign engineers for work. She spends a lot of time ringing prospective employers for her students but gets little response.
“Some of them have up to 20 years’ experience,” she says. “I spend my whole life ringing companies and talking to answering machines. They won’t return my phone calls, won’t return the engineers’ phone calls. If I can get someone to listen, I can often sell [the candidate] but often companies won’t take the time to even consider it or take the phone call.”
I may not be a racial thing after all, the second-largest group of 457 visa recipients was Indian. Yousif also says the poor response is not necessarily racist. “It may, when you see a strange name, raise concerns about difficulties in the English language or communications, which is important to the workplace but that is easy to overcome by a phone call or an interview in which you find out about the person.”
But some are not even willing to do that, a Brisbane-based recruiter who specialises in civil engineers, Heather Macindoe, says.
“If I changed the name to ‘Michael Smith’, they’d get interviews at least,” she says.
Macindoe gives the example of a meeting she had with an employer in July. She took along a clutch of CVs. One of her candidates’ resumes had already been forwarded to the employer who told Macindoe when she sat down with him that he’d already dismissed that one – with an Indian name – as a possibility.
“I don’t think it would be a good cultural fit with that fellow,” she recalls him saying.
“That’s very interesting,” she responded. “I can tell you that fellow has got very good experience. Even more importantly, that ‘fellow’ was a woman.”
There may be a reluctance on the part of some employers based on past experiences, says Engineers Australia’s career development centre manager Jennifer O’Donovan.
“I think it comes down to some employers having possibly been burned by overseas qualified engineers in the past,” she says. “Whether their qualifications haven’t been vetted properly, or they’ve taken some liberty with the type of experience they’ve had.”
O’Donovan also says that even locally trained graduates struggle to get a response. “I speak to graduates from UNSW for example,” she says. “They say if they send out 20-50 applications, they’re lucky if they only hear back from two or three. I would call it bad manners. It seems to be the norm.”
But the behaviour here doesn’t just stop with graduates. It is blocking experienced engineers.
Reza Mohammadian is 42. He arrived in Australia in August last year after spending 10 years working on oil and gas projects in Iran. He has permanent residency and his qualifications give him standing as a professional chemical engineer in Australia. He says he has applied for 150 jobs since coming here, to no avail.
“When I applied for such positions, I got feedback saying: ‘You don’t have any local experience’,” Brisbane-based Mohammadian says. “I was a senior project engineer. I tried to apply for a junior engineer position and they said I was too qualified. It was a paradox.”
Those trying to resolve the situation, such as BNIT’s Lamb-Nicholls, feel a sense of despair.
“There’s certainly an element of frustration for us,” she says. “These are people who will work incredibly hard, move to the most remote part of Australia if need be and companies still aren’t picking them up.”
The engineers feel it, too. “I don’t know what is expected from us here,” Amirghasemi says.