The employability of international graduates has emerged as a key challenge facing the Australian higher education sector. International students now seek to acquire international work experience to complement their foreign qualification and build a career portfolio that will ensure access to global and home country labour markets. Post-study work options are now a major determinant of study destination. However, despite the importance placed on gaining discipline related work experience, many international students struggle to gain local work experience due to limited local networks, lack of knowledge of the Australian labour market, poor understanding of the job application process and weak communication skills. These are some of the key findings of research carried out by Deakin University as part of an Australian Research Council funded Discovery Project in partnership with IDP Education Pty Ltd.
While initially the study sought to consider the employment outcomes of Australian international graduates in areas of skill shortage (nursing, engineering and accounting), it occurred amidst a rapidly changing policy landscape as Australia’s skilled migration program shifted from a supply side to a demand driven system. International graduates were still benefiting from an earlier policy which allowed international students graduating from Australian institutions to apply for Skill Stream visas onshore. However, the government became concerned about how the apparent higher level of advantage given to international students with Australian qualifications in areas of skill shortages (e.g. hospitality) was encouraging some to study in Australia for migration purposes alone. The federal Government in 2012 introduced a series of reforms after the Knight Review. The new policy favoured employer sponsorship. The criteria for obtaining a permanent residency visa was tightened, thus removing any perceived link between education and migration. The focus was to attract international students to Australia by offering a high quality higher education experience rather than future employment (Gribble & Blackmore, 2012). For many international graduates, the shift in policy now meant finding alternate pathways to achieving long term residency in Australia.
This was not a systematic study of any of either the Australian or international labour markets in accountancy, engineering or nursing. We examined the expectations of employers and investigated what they are looking for in terms of credentials, skills and attributes when hiring graduates in the three discipline areas. Via in depth qualitative interviews with international students, university staff, employers, industry bodies and government, the study examined how international graduates negotiate this shifting policy environment, why they place so much importance on post-study work and the strategies they employ to enhance their chances of securing employment in Australian after graduating. The study also explored the implications for universities and how they are affected by the emphasis on post study employment outcomes.
Credentials alone are not a guarantee of employment
Both extant Australian and international research indicate that with the massification of higher education that credentials alone are no longer a guarantee of graduate employment (Brown, Lauder & Ashton, 2010). Our interviews with employers and graduates found that while employers are seeking a good university qualification, there is a preference for graduates with a broad range of skills and experience. Employers are looking for graduates with a portfolio of experience that includes volunteer work, extracurricular activities, excellent communication skills and relevant local work experience. Visa status is also a major barrier to employment in Australia with many employers reluctant to hire international graduates without permanent residency. Not one international graduate interviewed for our study was sponsored by an Australian employer.
International graduates place great importance on gaining relevant local work experience
For international graduates, acquiring relevant work experience while at university is considered imperative. While a clinical placement is a compulsory component of any nursing qualification, there is growing demand for some form of work placement in accounting and engineering. The growing demand for work experience is evidenced in the expansion of programs such as the Professional Year as well as the recent decision by the Victorian government to invest in an internship program for international students (see Internships and work experience report). Despite the significant demand for work experience, international students are largely frustrated by the lack of work experience opportunities.
Evidence of highly differentiated labour markets within specific fields
Our research reveals that within the specific fields of accounting, nursing and engineering the labour markets are highly differentiated. For example, while graduate accountants may experience some difficulty entering the labour market, there are indications of shortages of mid-level accountants with 5-10 years’ experience. There are also suggestions that smaller firms may find it harder to fill labour shortages than larger more prestigious corporations. Shortages for nurses and engineers with specialists skills also persist (Health Workforce Australia, 2012; McLeod, 2012)
Employment expectations of international graduate
Interviews with international accounting students reveal that many embark on their studies in Australia with very high expectations of post study employment. For example, many of the international accounting students we interviewed had set their sights on a graduate position in a large multinational firms while most nursing students were aiming to work in in the major metropolitan hospitals. Our research suggests that the expectations of international students need to be carefully managed and the benefits associated with gaining work outside the “Big 4” or in metropolitan centres need to be emphasised. As with every early career, there are multiple pathways and working for a smaller firm, a regional hospital or a not-for-profit may lead to other opportunities.
Improving the work readiness of international graduates
Finally, our study reveals that with the growing importance being placed on work experience, English language and extracurricular activities, international graduates require further opportunities to develop capacity in these areas and establish local networks in order to improve their chances of success in the labour market. This finding has implications for the Australian university sector who can play a key role in enhancing international graduates’ employability. English language proficiency is central to labour market success in both home and host countries and this study confirms that many international students require additional support to further develop their English language skills. Importantly, providing international students with exposure to the Australian workplace via internships and other work integrated learning programs will not only improve the employability of graduates but is likely to enhance the value of an Australian degree.
Brown, P., Lauder, H., & Ashton, D. (2012).The Global Auction. Oxford.
Gribble, C., & Blackmore, J. (2012) Re-positioning Australia’s international education in global knowledge economies: implications of shifts in skilled migration policies for universities. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(4) 341-354
Health Workforce Australia. (2012). Health Workforce 2025 – Doctors, Nurses and Midwives. Canberra: Australian Government.
McLeod, P. (2012, April 21). Shortage drives up engineering salaries. The Australian.