The most intelligent minds forced to work in fast-food giants, supermarkets and taxi companies – why Australia has a problem integrating overseas-trained professionals and why we need them to practice in their chosen professions.
This affects all of us.
Choose a country that is currently plagued by war or political turmoil. Any country. Just consider for one minute that you were not born in Australia. For some individuals, there are a series of exams and lengthy application forms you must complete in order to have your overseas-obtained degree or license registered in Australia or New Zealand.
You do not have the time or the financial assets to persevere through this costly, lengthy process.
Would you lose hope? Take odd, mindless jobs to help make ends meet for your family? Would it always be in the back of your mind – that one day, you could be the renowned surgeon, psychiatrist, doctor, lawyer, or engineer that you were back in your country of origin?
Remember, you are not yourself right now. You are an immigrant from your country of choice that you chose just one minute ago.
You get that choice.
Imagine slaving over textbooks, completing placements and working tirelessly for several years, only to arrive in Australia and have to start all over again.
Australia and New Zealand need overseas-trained specialists, so why is the whole process so challenging?
1991 – August Coup, Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR)
Boris Yeltsin takes power in August, 1991. Svetlana, (whose last name has been omitted for confidentiality purposes) leaves Russia for Melbourne, Australia on this exact day.
The significance of the date is merely coincidental. I interview Svetlana, 25 years later, while she cooks. I observe her sudden, pensive pauses and her brief lapses in sentences, while she tries to find the right words so that I am able to convey the complete truth to her life story and how she came to find herself living in Australia.
Svetlana studied for five years at The Belarussian Institute of Civil Engineers.
She worked for three years in a government position, mostly working on renovations and oversaw the structure and repairs of houses, schools and kindergartens.
I ask her if she ever considered completing all the necessary applications to get her qualifications recognised by Australian standards. She pauses for a moment. “No, because I had to look after my children. At the time, one was almost three and the other was six and a half.”
“I completed a course in Australia in childcare, which took one year. I worked in childcare for three years as a relief worker. I found it was quite hard to work as I had two children of my own at home. My husband, a chemical engineer, completed a course to become an electrician and he did that part-time for four years”.
“What prompted you to move to Australia?” I ask.
I watch her eyebrows crease as she finds the words to say. She takes me back to 1991.
“There was an explosion at the Chernobyl power station, which was 60 kilometres from my parents’ house. There was radiation everywhere. I had two young kids and decided it was better to move to Australia. The government didn’t tell us about the explosion until a week later. I remember at the time there was a parade, and kids were playing outside all week. Everyone was outside. The government didn’t want panic or chaos”.
For some immigrants like Svetlana, the whole process of becoming a registered civil engineer wasn’t even a thought. She worked hard in another field so that her children could be successful. She thought about the next generation years before they had to. That is selfless.
Both Svetlana’s two adult sons are now 28 and 31 years old. They both studied Computer Science at RMIT University and now work full-time in their chosen fields.
Svetlana’s story epitomises the difficulties faced by immigrants who have settled in Australia with young children. Others arrive in Australia with the intention to practice and are faced with fees and lengthy applications.
One can only imagine how difficult it is for those who immigrate. An example of the hardships is outlined below, detailing who is eligible to become a psychiatrist in Australia or New Zealand.
Australia is a multi-cultural country. We are often shocked by stories of racism; stunned that people can have racist attitudes “in a country like Australia.”
But are we doing enough?
It is after midnight on a weeknight and I am taking an uber home from the city after attending a fundraising event. My driver, Maaz Khan, 24, took an interest in my life; where I had been and what course I was studying. It made me question: what about his? What about so many others?
Khan believes that many immigrants do not realise how difficult it is to transition to life in Australia. He spoke of a South African doctor who applied for a job at 7/11. The doctor had left a mark on him, as the doctor told him how he was unaware of the obstacle course he had to take in order to get his license recognised. Khan said it was simply “too difficult”.
The need for overseas-trained doctors, specifically, to be in rural areas, began in 1997 when the Howard Government banned doctors who entered after that time from billing under Medicare for 10 years unless they worked in areas of need, and this was typically in rural areas.
In 2011, the Rural Doctors Association of Australia wrote in a report that overseas-trained professionals have prevented “a catastrophic collapse in the medical workforce in rural and remote areas.”
“If someone intends to live here,” Khan said, “the Australian Government should let them know beforehand about the lifestyle before they enter the country. If someone is moving for a job, simply just inform them of the difficulties they will face. Many are ignorant of that.”
“Of course there are websites [detailing the process], but it would be good for them to make some sort of compulsory meeting to attend prior to packing up their lives, where they will be informed of what exactly they are in for and what working in Australia will be like”.
Many do in fact, like Khan, drive taxis, while completing their registration, although Khan is fortunate enough to have settled here in his teenage years, and was able to get into university in Melbourne. Those who eventually obtain their qualifications are stationed in rural areas for up to 10 years and most are unaware of the hardships.
Of course it is imperative that medical qualifications be checked and up to Australian standards and that foreign overseas-professionals speak proficient English. The problem is that the assessment Australia needs exceeds what we demand for our own professionals trained here.
Australia needs to prioritise simplifying the entire process. We are simply demanding too much.
A physically sick man could one day be saved by, say, a South African doctor, a suicidal teenager saved by a Pakistani psychiatrist. An Indian engineer could invent the most groundbreaking software and the list goes on and on.
Australia needs overseas-trained professionals in order to prosper as a nation.
This really could and does affect us all.