By Ron Maxwell - CEO

It’s no secret that populations across regional Australia are on the decline, propelled by lack of employment opportunities. More and more people, particularly youth, make the exodus each year to pursue employment or further education in our cities. This can create a vicious cycle – more people choosing to leave a region make it less attractive to the big businesses who could provide the employment opportunities required for them to stay. 

Perhaps there is another solution, one that has the potential to benefit the whole community on a number of levels. The current Skilled Migration Visas for regional Australia make it easier for employers to sponsor skilled migrants, but a regional think tank is calling on the Turnbull Government to expand the system into a match-making program that would pair migrants with employment opportunities in regional communities.

And there is plenty of proof that skilled migration can work.  A great example comes from Nhill in Victoria, where the largest commercial business in the area, meat manufacturer Luv-a-Duck, needed more workers than the local economy could provide. Working with AMES Australia, they identified an opportunity to resettle Karen refugees from Melbourne who were looking for work. The Regional Australia Institute reported that the area experienced a significant uplift in population, community culture, and the economy – with a number of new businesses attracted to the area, creating more jobs for locals and newcomers alike.   

Communities can be enriched

Regional migration can bring a wealth of cultural and social benefits to local communities. In turn, settling in these communities offers migrants a great lifestyle, while also decreasing the demand on the infrastructure of our congested cities. 

Diversity can bring a cultural richness to an area and shape a new future for some of our oldest towns.  Look at a place like Dubbo; it’s now home to such a range of cultures that it hosts an annual Multicultural Festival, showcasing the diverse range of foods, cultures, and arts that locals have brought with them from their origins across the globe.

Moving to a regional area has many benefits for migrants too: Affordable housing, open space, and a family-friendly lifestyle, chief among them. Additionally, the lifestyle in our regional communities tends to be slower paced and more locally centred than in our cities, with significantly more opportunities for social interaction and to make new connections.  Migrants in regional Australia often experience more opportunities to shape and contribute to their communities in meaningful ways and build social networksthan their metropolitan counterparts.

In recent years, 151 regional areas across the country have effectively used international immigration to reverse population declinebut many more could realise the benefits. The key lies in providing the investment and resourcing to make these programs and communities sustainable in the long term.

It will take investment, resourcing and support

A match-making program, like the one proposed, could certainly be a step in the right direction, but it can’t happen in a vacuum. It will take more than simply matching skilled migrants with job opportunities, it’s got to be about future-proofing our regions, ensuring employment and educational opportunities, health facilities and infrastructure will continue to grow and evolve with the expanding population, otherwise failure rates are likely to be high. 

Without effective collaboration across levels of government and departments, there will be a risk of creating social discontent and ultimately, exacerbating population decline in the long-term. Support must start from the very beginning. As migrants are settling in to regional towns, Commonwealth support to help them access services and engage with their communities is vital.  

The data tells us that migrants who take up regional visas often move to cities once the mandatory period is up, so it’s even more important that local councils pick up the mantle when Commonwealth programs end, to create continuous support and opportunities for interaction in and contribution to the community. It’s often floated that longer mandatory periods are the answer, but in my opinion, it isn’t the best way.  Making people stay in an area doesn’t enrich a community – it can, and often does, do the opposite.  

A holistic approach is key

The key to the success of these programs and ultimately, reversing population decline, lies in creating an environment that enriches communities and ensures they are economically sustainable.  

If our governments can work together to take a holistic approach, that considers the economic, social and cultural aspects, skilled migration can play a significant role in reversing population decline and ensuring a strong future for regional Australia.