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Australia to lure more U.S. construction workers

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CANBERRA, Australia >> Australia is hoping to lure more American plumbers, electricians and construction workers to be employed on Outback projects in the burgeoning mining and gas industries by changing how their skills are assessed.

Currently U.S. skilled workers can wait in Australia for months before they are issued with licenses that allow them to work in a trade and they face the risk of being rejected if their skills don’t meet Australian standards.

The government said Monday that the system will be overhauled this month so that their skills can be assessed in the United States, giving applicants certainty that they can work in their trade when they arrive.

Australia will also host its first ever skills expo in the United States to explain what jobs are available and how Americans can apply. Because of the resource industry focus, the expo will be held in Houston, Texas, on May 19 and 20. Similar expos have been held in Ireland and Greece where crippling government debt and recession have fueled unemployment.

Australia avoided recession during the global financial crisis thanks to Chinese demand for raw materials including iron ore and coal, Australia’ two largest exports. The Australian unemployment rate is 5.2 percent.

The U.S. unemployment rate is 8.3 percent and many involved in the sluggish construction industry there are looking for work.

Many of the jobs will be in building mines, railways and ports in remote parts of Western Australia and Queensland states.

Skills Minister Chris Evans said pay and conditions are attractive, although the distance between the United States and Australia would put some off.

“Workers coming into the resources industry in Australia at the moment will be among the best paid workers in the world,” Evans told reporters.

“The large amount of construction occurring in Australia in developing mines, railways and ports is putting huge demand on our existing civil engineering work force,” he said.

He said by 2015 the civil engineering work force, which includes supporting occupations such as electricians, will need to swell to 75,000 compared with the current work force of 35,000.

Evans said Australia was extending to the United States a skills assessment regime that already existed in some other countries.

U.S. Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich described the employment drive as “a real win-win for both of our nations.”

U.S. war veterans could be particularly suited for work in remote Australian mine sites, he said.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said the United States is a significant source of the workers currently in Australia on so457 visas — a popular employer-sponsored visa that allows a foreign citizen to live and work in Australia for up to four years.

Government figures show that the number of 457 visa holders in Australia increased by 11 percent last year to 128,600. The U.S. provided the fifth largest number of these temporary workers, with 6.2 percent of the total during 2011, after Britain, India, the Philippines and Ireland.

The United States is also the largest source of foreign investment in Australia followed by Britain and China.

Bowen said temporary workers could apply for permanent residency while in Australia.

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