Getting Serious About Australian Unemployment

September 11, 2017

Is the Australian Government giving up on reducing unemployment

It’s time to get serious about reducing Australia’s unemployment rate. We need a national training policy that gets Australians to work.

Those were the words that came to me when I read Stephen Koukoulas’ article, “Australia has given up on solving unemployment”, (The New Daily, 17 August 2017).

“It is a sad state of affairs to realise that the current crop of Australian policy-makers have effectively given up on reducing unemployment. Treasury reckons that the lowest the unemployment rate can go without there being a wages and inflation breakout is around 5.25 per cent,” Koukoulas writes.

“The Reserve Bank of Australia notes something similar, forecasting that even when the economy is growing strongly at an above-trend pace, the unemployment rate will hover between 5 and 6 per cent,” he continues.

Australian unemployment remains persistently high

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) July 2017 figures show unemployment in Australia at 5.6%, an official figure of 728,100 people: “Enough to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground about seven times,” Koukoulas writes.

Koukoulas analyses Australian Treasury and Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) reports, and concludes that, “Australia will never see fewer than about 700,000 people unemployed – no matter what kind of improvement we see.”

He’s not the only one outlining that prospect. Trading Economics, a New York City company that analyses 196 countries, including “official sources of historical data for more than 20 million economic indicators, exchange rates, stock market indexes, government bond yields and commodity prices”, also predicts that Australia’s unemployment rate in 2020 – 3 years from now – will be … 5.6%. That’s correct, no change at all.

Koukoulas compares Australia internationally: “It seems to be a peculiarly Australian issue. In the US, the unemployment rate is 4.3%, in the UK it is 4.5%, in Japan it is 2.8% while in Germany, the unemployment rate is 3.9%. It is clear the government has given up on reducing unemployment.”

Unemployment hits the most vulnerable and most disadvantaged in Australian society

What Koukoulas does not detail are the social, economic, regional and generational costs of persistent unemployment. This is how the Australian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Workplace Relations describes the consequences of unemployment:

Unemployment is a major life event. It can have a devastating impact on people’s lives. It affects not just the unemployed person but also family members and the wider community. The impact of unemployment can be long-lasting. As unemployment becomes more long-term, its impact becomes more far reaching, often affecting living standards in retirement. The loss of income by the parents can damage the prospects of the next generation.

Unemployment disproportionately impacts Australia’s most disadvantaged groups: young people, Indigenous Australians, rural and regional residents and people with disabilities.

Young people (generally ages 15 to 24) in Australia had an official unemployment rate (July 2017) of 12.9%, more than double the national rate of 5.6%. According to Dr Patrick Carvalho:

– The damaging effects of youth unemployment can persist into adulthood, with different intensity and longevity depending on the length of the unemployment period and on individual conditions such as education levels and socioeconomic background.

– There is no minimal or safe threshold regarding the length of early unemployment experience…. the longer a person is unemployed, the longer the perversive effects are likely to last.

– Such negative long-term consequences of early jobless spells are commonly referred to in the literature as the “scarring effects”. (p. 19, Youth Unemployment in Australia, Centre for Independent Studies, November 2015)

Youth unemployment impacts are not felt uniformly, with the national figure masking high concentrations in many locations, especially regional and rural Australia: unemployment rates of 28.4% in outback Queensland, 21.8% in NSW Hunter Valley (outside Newcastle), 20.5% in Cairns, 19.6% in southeast Tasmania, 19.5% in mid north coast New South Wales, 19.4% in mid north South Australia and 18.4% in south eastern New South Wales. (Source: “Australia’s Youth Unemployment Hotspots: Snapshot”, The Brotherhood of St Laurence, March 2016.)

The growing youth under-employment – those who wish to work more than they do – now at 18% (February 2017), “is the highest in the 40 years since the count officially began,” according to the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s “Generation Stalled” Report. Add the two figures together – unemployment and under-employment – and you get a staggering 31%, almost one-third, of young Australians who are “underutilised”. Surely this “underutilisation rate” will be much higher – possibly 50% or more – in many regional locations. Are we in danger of allowing a sub-generation of unemployed and underemployed young people to “fall through the cracks”, with long-term life consequences for them, their families, their communities and our country?

It’s not just young people:

It’s time for a national training policy that targets reducing unemployment

Australian unemployment should be below 5%, not drifting towards 6%. “In addition to the obvious social benefits of having a highly skilled population, maximising training and educational attainment should be an uncontroversial policy aim,” Koukoulas says.

Koukoulas believes that the Australian “unemployment rate is being skewed by a number of longer-run structural factors,”, including an “education and training system mean that those who are unemployed do not have the requisite skills for the modern Australia economy.” Australia is “heavily reliant on imported skilled workers who arrive here via the 457 visa program,” he writes.

“Yet the government imposes cuts to trades training, is underfunding school education, ramping up university fees and forcing those who get a degree to pay for it more quickly,” he continues.

It’s not too late to invest in Australian training. Australia is endowed with extraordinary natural resources, extensive wealth, dynamic and hardworking people. We have one of the most welcoming societies in the world and are the “most successful immigrant nation on Earth”, according to demographer Bernard Salt.

Despite years of vocational education and training (VET) policy chopping and changing by governments of all political stripes, we have still maintained the framework of an internationally recognised and admired training system.

We have the capacity. We have the skills to make it happen. What we need now is the will and the focus. The desire to place training at the TOP of the national policy agenda, not an “also ran” issue.

Australia’s Community VET sector

Australia’s community education VET sector can and will do its part to address unemployment. The year 2016 saw a rise of the community sector’s VET students to 9% of the national total.  The community education sector does very well at ensuring unemployed people can be lifted into employment: according to the NCVER, in 2016 community education providers topped all categories (TAFE, private for-profit, university), with almost half (48.9%) of graduates employed at the end of the training that had not been employed prior to commencing their study.

We address the needs of vulnerable and disadvantaged people, and we over-perform in regional and rural Australia, where VET is most needed and valued.

(Note: This post was originally published by Community Colleges Australia on 11 September 2017. View the original version here.)

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