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Forget the shearers and welders - corporate executives on 457 visas

Ian McLeod, the former chief executive of Coles and man responsible for its massive revival, and the Tabcorp boss who is spearheading the creation of an $11 billion gaming merger are among a raft of our current and former captains of industry who came to our shores on 457 work visas.

It's a list that spans most areas of Australian retail from mining to manufacturing and includes the head of the $7 billion explosives group Orica – Alberto Calderon – and the current head of Coles, John Durkan.

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reiterated the government's new "Australia first" commitment to 457 visa changes in Canberra on Wednesday morning, saying Labor has allowed the program to explode.

Most often the 457 debate has focused on the likes of welders, nurses or hairdressers, shearers or actors or the various misuses of the visa scheme. It was certainly being abused by some and needed an overhaul.

But experts say that using a corporate-sponsored 457 visa is the most common pathway for top executives to enter Australia and many go on to take up citizenship.

Its likely that even BHP Billiton's chief executive Andrew Mackenzie was a recipient.

The company has certainly used 457s for some senior executives – Calderon came to Australia with BHP and became its chief executive of its aluminium, nickel and corporate development division before moving to Orica.

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Some could argue that these positions could be filled with local managers, but the talent pool for executives at the most senior level can be limited for very large and international companies – particularly in Australia where there is often a small number of large industry players.

Take for example the deputy chief executive of Myer, Daniel Bracken. He arrived on a 457 visa having had the experience of a 15 years at upmarket UK brand Burberry.

Using 457 visas to bring very senior executive talent into run large businesses seems like a particularly appropriate use of the scheme.

While recruitment firms are suggesting Malcolm Turnbull's decision to rein in the use of 457 and tightening the eligibility for receiving them will make it harder for big corporations to source offshore executives, it's hard to imagine that there will not other avenues to recruit international executives. However most of these executives had been brought in under an employment category that has now been abolished.

Hiring offshore executives is expensive and organisations repeatedly say that if they could find a local executive with equal skill and experience they would hire them by preference.

The additional issue is that there will now be an age limit of 45 on offshore talent.

In large multinational firms, most boards recruit older chief executives who bring sufficient experience to the role.

One particular industry where senior management are regularly recruited from offshore is retailing. One Australian retail board member who has used 457 visas to bring in senior management says that the level of sophistication and expertise he sees in offshore recruits simply can't be matched from the local talent pool.

He said executives from the UK, South Africa and the US, who had worked in major retailers around the world and had experience in international brands, were mostly successful in Australia. We are a small nation with some particularly large companies.

Resources is another sector where the large Australian-based companies will look abroad for a depth of experience – from South Africa and South America.

The flow-on effect of any restrictions on bringing executive talent to Australia will be felt by shareholders of listed companies, which are looking for international contenders to ensure they have the best management available.

The Prime Minister says it's all about putting Australia first – but if it comes at the expense of missing out on executive talent, it will come at a price.

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