Australian Economy

Business leader Leigh Clifford warns of skills crisis

A lack of foreign skilled workers in Australia is partly because of the decline in immigration over the past two years when the government shut the international border.

However, lengthy delays on approving visas for skilled foreign workers by the Home Affairs department have also contributed to the labor shortage. The median short-term temporary skilled visa currently takes 83 days to finalise, up from 53 days in March. One quarter of skilled foreign worker applications are taking at least a year to process.

The number of skilled foreign workers in Australia has slumped to half the number seen a decade ago, and federal officials have been told to act on the extraordinary backlog in visa applications for thousands of skilled workers.

The chronic labour shortages has resulted in some employers claiming they will have to shut down if they cannot find workers.

Very optimistic

Before his Qantas chairmanship, Clifford spent 37 years at mining giant Rio Tinto, including a stint as CEO from 2000 to 2007.

Clifford spent 37 years with Rio Tinto, before becoming chairman of Qantas in 2007.

Clifford spent 37 years with Rio Tinto, before becoming chairman of Qantas in 2007.Credit:Eddie Jim

Since his time at the helm, Clifford says environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns have grown, particularly regarding carbon emissions. He says Rio Tinto and the mining industry “is responding” and still has “a great story to tell”.

“I recently saw the head of the United Nations criticising mining. I think he was a bit ‘one size fits all’ in that comment,” Clifford said. “Minerals are an essential part of wind turbines, they’re any essential part of mobiles phones, they’re an essential aspect of life.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has previously criticised investment in fossil fuels as “moral and economic madness” and has been a leading advocate for rapid climate action.

Clifford said the transition to renewable energy had merit, but speed at which some clean energy advocates wanted to move away from fossil fuels was “very optimistic”.


The businessman praised the climate initiatives of companies he was previously involved with, and said Qantas’ commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 would be “very demanding” to achieve. Rio Tinto has also committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

Although best-known for his business activities, Clifford sits on the board of the National Gallery of Victoria, while he has also established scholarships and lead a philanthropic drive at the University of Melbourne.

His promotion from Officer to a Companion of the Order of Australia this year recognises his contribution to business in the aviation, arts, and education sectors, alongside his philanthropic work.

Despite his global career, Clifford can’t escape the woes of his Australian rules football team, with Essendon sitting third-last on the AFL ladder this season.

“It’s so frustrating! I was talking to one of my mates last night and we were lamenting it,” the former footballer said.

Some things you can’t avoid as a “proud citizen of Melbourne, Victoria”.

Other business names honoured at this year’s Queen’s Birthday celebrations include investment banking veteran Steve Harker – a former director at Westpac and the former head of Morgan Stanley in Australia – along with former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) commissioner Cristina Cifuentes. Ms Cifuentes left the competition regulator in July 2020.

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