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Home is where the heart is; overcoming the skilled migration barrier

Skilled migration is often seen as a solution to ongoing recruitment issues, but few would see it as a simple solution.

Skilled migration is often seen as a solution to ongoing recruitment issues, but few would see it as a simple solution. Fix Auto Morley and Fix Auto Malaga City owner Travis Arnold shows thinking and investing long-term can yield better results.

In Western Australia the skills and the housing crisis seem to have combined into a perfect storm. On one hand, immigration is often blamed for housing issues but there is a deficit of skills needed to build new housing.

The automotive repair industry is feeling the skills shortage acutely but even if it arranges skilled immigrants to fill the vital roles, the housing crisis means they may have nowhere to live when they arrive.

For Travis Arnold this is the nub of the problem and he embarked on an innovative and dedicated journey to find his own solutions. This began not only with him investing in a trip to the Philippines in 2022 to make sure the best -possible recruits were secured but to some unusual commitment to ensure they are housed and happy when they are here.

Rental stress

The expense, red tape and delays of utilising skilled migration as an answer to the recruitment challenges, was in some ways only the first problem for Travis Arnold, which came down to the critical issue of housing.

“The problem is that trying to get a rental is flat out impossible at the moment. I think our vacancy rate is like less than one per cent,” he says.

With single bedroom flats often beyond the price range of new workers, they must find shared accommodation from the few options available or look to their employer to help find a place.

“The houses that I’ve rented, I just had to pay the whole six-month lease in advance,” he says.

Travis says this adds to the risk for the business owners if there are delays in the skilled workers arriving from overseas or if their situations don’t work out and they go home, leaving gaps in accommodation that still must be paid for.

“I’ve gone and rented a couple of properties, and the rents have since gone up by 20 per cent.”

But in an effort to protect the workers from being overwhelmed by this housing crisis when they pay for their own accommodation, Travis has not passed on the rent increases.

“I want their first experience in Australia to be a good one, I don’t want these guys to come over and say, what’s the point of being here with this cost of living, I may as well just go home.”

Travis sees the issue of housing as so critical to worker stability and retention that he has decided to invest significantly in their support.

“The short-term solution is I’ve actually decided to cover the difference in the increase. The long term is, we’ve just invested in a development block.”

This bold plan involves investing in a central block in Perth, that has a house on it that can accommodate the first of his workers, who has been with him for more than a year. Then he plans to subdivide the land and build units that have the potential to house up to six other Filipino workers.

Travis believes the housing issue in Perth is likely to be a long-term one and the investment in housing, though substantial is worthwhile.

Settled

The stability of the housing has the added advantage of giving stability to the workers and a sense of permanence, he says. This is vitally important for workers so far from their homeland and families, particularly when cultures like those of the Philippines are so family centred.   

“The long-time plan is, I can rent these properties to these guys so they can actually have an opportunity to bring their families here.”

Having his workers together in relative proximity not only helps overcome loneliness and isolation but helps them support one another and begin to imagine a long-term future in Australia.

“I said to them in the long term, you and your families could all be living next door to each other, and they are happy about that. A few years down the track and they can see they will all sort of stay together, like the kids can go to school in the same suburb so on, which I think is pretty important to them.

“We invest all this money and all this effort into bringing these guys out and retraining them and trying to get skill sets up to the Australian standard. It’s a lot of money and you don’t want it just to fall over because these guys can’t fulfil their dream of bringing their family out or even getting a rental.”

Family values

True to ethos of the Fix Auto Network, which encourages the values of a family run business, Travis tries to embed this in the lives of his staff based on the principle that those happiest in their work will give the most back.

“It is very much like a family business, especially for these guys that are living together. They’ve got a car which they share and pick each other up,” he says.

“But It’s bigger than just providing a happy workplace, you’ve got to try and give these guys a supportive environment and not just these guys, the local guys and the apprentices. You want to try and make sure that they’ve got a happy life outside of work, so they’re happy at work.”

While there are many factors outside of work that are beyond the control of a business owner, building the basics of a support and stability can not only ensure the skilled migrants stay for the long term but encourage the best attitudes at work and a commitment to developing.  These are the qualities crucial to Travis in deciding how he chooses the recruits.

“Because smash repairs is a team sport. We all do it differently, but to me, it’s very much about attitude and being a team player over ability. I’d rather have someone with a little less ability that has a good team work ethic. It goes a lot further. And when you’re trying to instil all these processes in place, if you’ve got long-term guys, it’s far, far better.”

This is why he has focussed on keeping his workers for the longer term and along with a focus on in-house training and development that benefits the workers and potentially the business into the future.

“The other thing is there’s obviously opportunities for growth. There’s always going to be need for a production manager or an estimator or a parts manager and so on. I’d always rather recruit those positions from within and from people that know the business.”

Commitment

Travis is the first to say the whole process of getting skilled workers is not simple or quick, but he does believe it offers solutions for businesses willing to dedicate the time and effort.

“The amount you pay per person to get them over, can be quite costly. I think if you’re going to look at this long term, you need to start investing in property, which is hard and people are going to say, that’s a lot of risk. But getting into business to start with is a lot of risk. The risk factor never goes away.

“If you can take a really long-term approach, I figured you can’t lose long term on residential property.  If businesses can be in a position where they can do that, they will also have their own housing and accommodation. I’d recommend it, it’s worked for me, and I want to continue on with the programme.”

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