Australian job hunt challenging for international graduates

By Linh Le   March 12, 2024 | 03:00 pm PT
Australian job hunt challenging for international graduates
International students dressed in academic gowns pose during a graduation photo shoot at Curtin University in Bentley, Perth, Western Australia, Australia. Photo by AFP
When she began pursuing her master’s degree at Melbourne University, Tran Thi Phuong did not anticipate how challenging it would be for her to secure a job after graduation.

The 27-year-old Vietnamese woman has now lost track of the number of job applications she has submitted. Her two years of experience at the auditing firm EY Vietnam, along with a master's degree in a globally respected field (Information Systems) from a prestigious university appear to have done little to aid her job search in Australia.

More often than the droves of rejection letters she’s received, she’s gotten no response at all.

"I have never experienced such panic," Phuong told VnExpress International. "At certain points, I’ve doubted whether or not I’ll ever secure employment here."

Ever since receiving her diploma in June 2023, it’s been 9 months of persistent effort. Phuong was finally offered a position as a strategy analyst at a land consulting firm associated with the Western Australian state government in Perth, a small city located 3,419 km from Melbourne.

Phuong’s experience underscores the wider challenges faced by temporary graduate visa holders in Australia as they pursue employment in the country following their studies.

The 2022 Graduate Outcomes Survey, which was carried out by the Australian government’s Quality Indicators of Learning and Teaching suite, found that 28.5% of international students with undergraduate degrees in Australia had remained jobless for at least six months following graduation. For those with international postgraduate research degrees, the percentage was 14.4%.

To put it another way, roughly two out of every seven international undergraduates and one out of every seven international postgraduate research graduates in Australia found themselves without employment six months after graduation.

Moin Rahman, a 28-year-old Bangladeshi graduate from the University of Queensland, found himself in this exact situation. Despite submitting applications for over 80 job openings, he struggled to secure a full-time role in civil engineering, his field of study at university.

"That takes a psychological toll," the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) quoted him as saying.

Despite being on a temporary graduate visa, Rahman said he encountered "friction" that held him back from progressing beyond casual and part-time jobs.

"If I somehow miraculously made my way through to an interview stage, I would be asked about my visa status," he said.

"When I would say that I am an international student but I have full-time work rights there was a shrug of shoulders and all of the preceding qualities that actually made the employer interested in me was overtaken by this one fact."

The struggle has persisted for some international graduates even after obtaining employment, as they have often settled for positions at lower salaries than their local counterparts.

A report from the Grattan Institute titled "Graduates in limbo: International student visa pathways after graduation," which was unveiled in October 2023, pointed out that "only half [of international graduates in Australia] secure full-time employment, most work in low-skilled jobs, and half earn less than A$53,300 (US$34,964) a year."

A family of four estimated monthly costs are $4,037 without rent. A single person estimated monthly costs are $1,144.2 without rent, according to Serbia-based statistics site Numbeo.

Meanwhile, the median rent for all dwellings across the country is $601 per week, equating to $31,252 a year, according to the most recent CoreLogic data.

This income is significantly below that of domestic graduates, essentially aligning more closely with the earnings of working holiday makers, most of whom come to Australia to travel.

The report also revealed that almost 75% of those holding a temporary graduate visas had incomes below the median for Australian workers in 2021.

Specifically, international graduates possessing postgraduate coursework degrees in business management were found to earn approximately A$58,000 annually less than their domestic counterparts holding the same qualifications.

Similarly, those with postgraduate coursework degrees in computing and engineering faced a yearly income deficit of about A$40,000 compared to domestic graduates.

International students who graduated with an undergraduate degree in engineering or computing were found earning A$12,000 less annually than their Australian peers, according to the report. The gap for business undergraduates was roughly A$10,000 a year.

In discussions with her colleagues from India, Thailand, and the Philippines, Phuong learned that achieving a salary comparable to that of Australians is "difficult and uncommon" for them.

In addition to being underpaid, international graduates in Australia often find themselves accepting jobs that neither require tertiary education nor match their academic fields of expertise.

A joint study conducted by the Australian Financial Review (AFR), Deakin University and University of Adelaide demonstrated that merely 36% of 1,156 international graduates polled from 35 universities secured full-time jobs in their studied field upon completing their education.

Some 40% of international graduates in Australia actually found themselves in roles considered low-skilled, notably in sectors such as retail, hospitality, or in positions like cleaning or driving.

Ruva Muranda, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical science in 2018, said she had to work in a warehouse until the early months of 2020.

"I got really depressed," she said. "It made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. It made me feel very ‘othered.’"

As she observed her colleagues advancing in their careers, securing employment, climbing the professional hierarchy, acquiring vehicles, purchasing homes, and achieving their vocational aspirations, her sense of stagnation intensified.

"It feels like you’re held back at the starting line."

With her options constrained, Swastika Samanta, who possesses a master's degree in environmental management, said she worked casual and part-time jobs for the length of her temporary graduate visa.

"Beggars can't be choosers. You take the best job that comes to you," she said.

Fear of quick replacement

Lack of English language proficiency is a roadblock for many foreign graduates seeking jobs in Australia.

The situation is evident as even in Victoria, the state with the largest proportion of laborers from non-main English-speaking countries, where these individuals still make up only 28.8% of the total labor force, according to the Australian Labour Market for Migrants report released by the Australian Government in October 2023.

Visa uncertainties also have employers reluctant in hiring foreign graduates.

According to the "Australian international graduates and the transition to employment" report by Deakin University and University of Technology Sydney (UTS) researchers, almost every interviewed employer expressed a preference for hiring graduates holding permanent residency visa status.

Dr. Thanh Pham, a researcher from Monash University, told ABC: "They (employers) make the assumption that international students cannot stay in Australia for long and are unaware of other visa pathways like bridging and residency visas ... When I interviewed them, they explained that if they hire an international student, they will have to employ someone new to replace them in a couple of years."

This policy was precisely the obstacle Phuong encountered during her job search, a realization that dawned on her only after accumulating significant time and experience.

Phuong pursued job openings in the oil and gas industry, as it's an area she is passionate about and has experience in. "However, employers tend to favor local candidates for positions in this sector within Australia, attributing their preference to the job’s involvement with highly confidential information regarding mineral and gas resources — commodities Australia is renowned for and deems highly sensitive," she said.

In some cases, Pham said she found employers discriminated against international students on the basis of what she called "fit-in" culture.

The report by Deakin University and UTS also showed that employers hesitate to hire international graduates because of higher costs and this necessitates additional on-the-job training to acclimate them to the Australian work environment.

Consequently, in the absence of an immediate skill shortage, employers show a preference for local graduates, aiming to avoid the perceived lengthy, expensive, and frequently exasperating sponsorship procedure.

Individuals arriving from nations with little representation in Australia face additional challenges, notably in forging connections within their ethnic communities.

According to the Australian Department of Education, as of last October, the country hosted about 768,000 international students, with the largest groups from China, India, and Nepal.

Harder future

Given changed economic environment and additional considerations, Australia, from mid-2024, will adjust its post-study work rights policy for international students, reducing the duration international graduates can stay in the country for work purposes.

Previously, the Australian government had extended the post-study work visa durations for undergraduates, master's, and PhD students in selected programs, allowing them to stay for up to 4-6 years depending on their level of study.

These durations will now revert to the original 2-3 years, according to the announcement made by the Australia's Department of Education.

Additionally, the age limit for applicants has been lowered from 50 to 35 years, and there will be no further opportunities for the extension of post-study work rights, except for those who have completed their education in a regional area. Roughly 350,000 individuals now hold graduate visas in Australia.

In the context that many employers hesitate to employ foreign graduates due to fear of their perceived visa status uncertainties, this policy could cut employment opportunities for international graduates in the country.

However, according to the views of some people, this also has positive aspects, which are ensuring more sustainable development for students and for Australia itself.

Policy analyst Andrew Norton from Australian National University expressed his general support for the reforms to the Times Higher Education: "This is a better, fairer system for the students themselves and it gives better results for Australia overall."

He added: "If you’re relatively young and have a good career start, the prospects will be reasonably good."

This positive view resonated with Phuong, even amidst the challenges she has faced. She maintains a hopeful outlook about the job-hunting process in Australia for international students.

"I consider myself luckier than many others I have encountered," she said. "And while the future remains uncertain, I am resolved to do whatever it takes to surmount any further hurdles that come my way."

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