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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Increase investment in community education to tackle disadvantage and unemployment in rural Australia

March 3, 2017

Community Colleges Australia issued the following press release in late February – reproduced below.

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Australian governments should increase investment in community education to address higher levels of disadvantage and unemployment in rural and regional Australia, according to a new report from Community Colleges Australia (CCA).

The report, The Role of Community Education in Australian Regional and Rural Economic Development, finds that not-for-profit community-based vocational education and training (VET) providers play a disproportionately large role in rural and regional Australia, educating at least 10% of VET students in New South Wales and 20% in Victoria.  This makes community providers a significant national force in providing skills to non-metropolitan Australia.

Participation rates in VET courses are 50% higher in rural and regional Australia than in metropolitan areas. A much larger percentage of rural and regional VET learners also study lower level qualifications: Certificate III and below – just those qualifications that community education providers excel in, with their focus on vulnerable and disadvantaged learners.

“This report shows how community education is crucial in providing skills and in driving economic development in rural and regional Australia, and includes numerous examples of ‘bottom-up’ innovative community-based approaches. Community education providers are uniquely positioned to act as ‘passing gear’ vehicles, accelerating new ideas and helping our regions to prosper,” said Dr Don Perlgut, Chief Executive Officer of CCA.

“Yet governments have not been investing enough in community education, particularly in high need, disadvantaged rural and regional areas where youth unemployment remains stubbornly high. We have not seen any national infrastructure investment in community education since 2009 – it’s now 2017. On top of this, Australia lacks a coherent national statement on the role of community education in VET. This policy vacuum makes it difficult for community providers to operate effectively,” said Dr Perlgut.

“CCA looks forward to working collaboratively with the Australian, state and territory governments to fix these issues, and to utilise the capacity that community VET providers have to meet pressing rural and regional skills needs,” said Dr Perlgut.

The report makes a number of key recommendations, including that the Commonwealth, state and territory governments should:

  • Boost funding for community education, including providing more support for infrastructure, professional development and staff training, pilot funding programs, and community service obligation activities.
  • Utilise regional and rural community education providers to engage with vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians, particularly young people.
  • Develop a coordinated national-state-territory policy statement on the value and place of community and adult education.
  • Examine VET funding programs to ensure community providers are not disadvantaged by unnecessary regulations.
  • Collect and publish annual data on regional and rural student outcomes and provider comparisons.

The full report The Role of Community Education in Australian Regional and Rural Economic Development is available here on Community Colleges Australia’s website.

 

(image below: logging truck driving through Armidale NSW)

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Remoteness Index of Australia

October 31, 2013

I am one of a small number that gets excited by a good map (the former town planner/geographer in me), but there is a great one of geographic remoteness in Australia as part of this document about families in rural and remote Australia, published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies:

Remoteness map of Australia

As I discussed in my recent post on rural and remote poverty, the key thing to remember is that almost every single indicator of well-being – educational attainment, health outcomes, families in crisis, etc (even telecommunications access) – declines as you move “outwards” in Australia from major cities to inner regional to outer regional to remote to very remote. This map shows it very well (although it does not include state boundaries on it, which would be helpful), and can be very helpful in determining which regions have compounded problems.


Rural Poverty in Australia

October 29, 2013

When you sit (as I often do) in one of Sydney’s wealthier suburbs, it’s hard to imagine the level of disadvantage the rural and remote Australians experience.  Fortunately, there are those that keep trying to remind us.

One of the latest is the report entitled A Snapshot of Poverty in Rural and Regional Australia, released on 14 October 2013 and co-published by the National Rural Health Alliance and the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS).

Here’s a figure that helps put it all in perspective:  “18 of the 20 electorates in Australia with the lowest household incomes are outside the capital cities”.  That’s correct.  A full 90% of them.

Need more proof?  Have a look at the table below.  Looks of figures (all expressed in percentages).  Examine the patterns carefully:  in every instance, as you move from metropolitan (the major cities to “inner regional” to “outer regional” to “remote” to “very remote”, the indicators get worse.  In other words, proportionately there are 50% more low income families with kids in remote communities than major cities – and almost three times that number in very remote communities.  There are 50% more long-term unemployed in regional areas and more than double that in very remote.  Whereas 50% of families in capital cities have private hospital cover, only 20% in remote communities do.  Every figure gets worse across every indicator.

Indirect poverty indicators in Australia

(All figures in %)

Major cities

Inner Regional

Outer Regional

Remote

Very Remote

Low income families w/kids

8.8

10.7

11.1

12.9

23.1

Single parent  beneficiaries

4.6

6.9

6.8

6.2

6.5

Disability pensioners

4.6

7.0

6.9

5.6

5.2

Long term unemployed

2.3

3.3

3.4

3.7

5.5

Unskilled and semi skilled

14.6

19.6

21.4

22.8

30.4

Jobless families children <15 yrs

12.2

15.4

15.6

15.0

25.9

Private health insurance hosp

48.2

43.8

40.6

33.0

19.6

Source: PHIDU http://www.publichealth.gov.au/remoteness—australia/remoteness—australia-2012-incl.-2011-census-data.html

Do you need more convincing?  How about this one?  Education indicators.  The differences are even starker.  You read this one right when you realise that only 4.5% of school leavers are in higher education in remote areas, only 12.1 in remote, 16.2 in outer regional and 20.4 in inner regional – but 35.5 in the major cities.  And yes, there are many more developmentally vulnerable children outside the major cities than in them.

Education indicators in Australia

(All figures in %)

Major cities

Inner Regional

Outer Regional

Remote

Very Remote

Young kids devt vulnerable

11.0

12.4

13.8

16.9

32.2

School leave in higher educ

35.5

20.4

16.2

12.1

4.5

16 year olds in high school

81.3

76.8

73.9

65.4

51.6


Dr Brian Bowring, Tasmanian rural general practitioner, receives AM honour

June 10, 2013

Today, 10 June 2013, the Australian Queens Birthday “Honours List” includes my former colleague Dr Brian Bowring, a past Chair of the Rural Health Education Foundation and a rural general practitioner in northern Tasmania.  Dr Bowring received an “AM” – a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia, for “significant service to medicine in rural and regional areas, and as a general practitioner”.

Dr Brian Bowring lives in George Town, Tasmania, a small industrial rural community located about one hour north of Launceston.   He was born in Hobart and graduated in medicine from the University of Tasmania.  Aside from his role with the Rural Health Education Foundation, Dr Bowring has been the Chair and Treasurer of the Board of General Practice Training Tasmania, Chair of Rural Workforce Tasmania and Deputy Chair of what is now Rural Health Workforce Australia.

I worked closely with Dr Bowring for more than eight years, reporting directly to him for the majority of my time when I was the CEO of the Rural Health Education Foundation from January 2003 through August 2011.  (He took the role of Chair of the Foundation in October 2002 and left that position in December 2010.)

He is a highly skilled medical educator and has been a generous and tireless campaigner for and practitioner of rural health, making an important impact both within his home state of Tasmania as well as nationally.  I have seen him “in action” doing everything from chairing meetings to staffing exhibition conference tables in places as diverse as Perth and Launceston.  His ability to “connect” with rural and remote health practitioners is unparalleled. I am proud of the eight-plus years that I worked closely with him and very pleased that his life and work has been honoured in this way.

To see the details of this honour on the website of the Governor General of Australia, go to this link and scroll down to page 40.

A photo of Dr Brian Bowring appears below:

Dr Brian Bowring

 


Rural Telecommunications Review submission

December 19, 2011

Amongst the many telecommunications reviews currently underway in Australia (think the Media Convergence review and others) sits one of profound importance for rural and remote Australians:  the Rural Telecommunications Review, which is being headed by Rosemary Sinclair. This review is due to report by 5 March 2012 (soon!) and is charged with the following:

In its review of telecommunications services in regional, rural and remote parts of Australia, the committee will have particular regard for initiatives that enable regional communities to participate in, and realise the opportunities of, the digital economy.

I have put a submission to this review, which is in part based on my digital inclusion paper, but extends the discussion further with particular regard to rural and remote Australia.  My submission is available here, and a list of all submissions to the Review can be seen here.


The Kevin Costner Effect: They keep on coming

December 18, 2011

According to The New York Times (“New Dreams for Field”, 30 October 2011, Sports p. 1), the fans are still coming to the baseball field that Kevin Costner’s character built in the 1989 film Field of Dreams (news flash: Field of Dreams  is screening on free-to-air Australian TV on digital channel One -“1”- on Thursday 22nd December at 8.30pm). Writer Ken Belson reports that the farm where the field was built (Dyersville, Iowa), whose owners have maintained the baseball field, has now been sold to new owners who are planning on maintaining it. In the first year after the film was released, about 7,000 people showed up to see the field; the following year that number doubled and “some brought their fathers’ old gloves and left them in the cornfield.  Others exchanged wedding vows or scattered ashes of deceased relatives.”

The powerful reaction to this place reflects three enduring, important and enduring themes in American life:

– the longing for a “historical past” which was simpler and filled with traditional values;

– the significance of farms and rural America in the consciousness of Americans as a place where the “real” America lies, irrespective of the fact that only a tiny percentage of Americans actually live on farms:  according to the US Dept of Agriculture, the figure is less than two percent; and according to the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, “the desertion of the small family farm constitutes the largest population movement in American history” and “the family farm is one of the last homes of old school American ethnicity and beliefs”; and

– the paramount and indeed spiritual importance of place, physical space – even in this digital, hyper-connected and networked world.

The lasting impact of this film, with its tag line “If you build it, they will come” also has helped to establish (or at least reinforce) what I call a significant fallacy in construction:  that somehow if we just build a place/space/building you name it, people will show.  Yes, they will come, but only rarely.  To Kevin Costner’s character’s field – and indeed even to its real-life location some twenty-two years later.

But not necessarily to everything.  In my recent (November 2011) presentation to the Communications Policy and Research Forum in Sydney (click here for details of this paper, including a link to the full downloadable paper), I call this belief of building and the coming “The Kevin Costner Effect”.  In the paper, I caution that this is not necessarily the case when it comes to the development of broadband networks and infrastructure like Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN).  The reason for this caution is that some twenty percent of the population in countries like Australia, the USA and the UK will not automatically “arrive” on broadband – emphasising the necessity to promote and systematically plan for digital inclusion.