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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July 24, 2017

I have just published an article about the latest news coming from the for-profit vocational education and training (VET) sector in Australia. You can read it on the Community Colleges Australia (CCA) website here.

And it’s not too late to sign up for the CCA conference, happening in Melbourne this week from Tuesday evening, 25 July through Thursday 27 July.


The Australian Government moves to start investing in vocational education and training

May 3, 2017

The Australian Government looks like it is about to start investing in vocational education and training (VET) again. It’s about time.

It’s also important to examine some recent history. Last July, Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition ran its election campaign under the slogan “jobs and growth”, although announced no new training policies or programs. Instead, it promoted a $48 billion tax cut for business, part of which has partially been approved by Parliament.

In June of last year, Monash Business School and the Economic Society of Australia (ESA) polled the ESA National Economic Panel for their opinion on this proposition: “Australia will receive a bigger economic growth dividend in the long-run by spending on education than offering an equivalent amount of money on a tax cut to business.”

Economists are famously not the most left-leaning group of professionals, but their responses to this question – while not uniform – were overwhelming: almost two-thirds of the panel (19 of 30) “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement, with only 6 economists disagreeing and 4 “uncertain”. Comments included:

  • Bruce Chapman: “Literacy and numeracy skills of the population are the most important contributors to long-run growth. So long as the additional education contributes importantly to these capacities there should be little doubt that expenditure in this area is of the most critical significance.”
  • Chris Edmond: “Business tax cuts offer a ‘one-off’ level effect and so has no long-run growth dividend at all, while investment in education has a very real prospect of increasing the growth rate of real GDP over an extended period.”
  • James Morely: “Estimates on returns to education are larger and more precise than estimates on the effects of tax cuts on investment and long-run growth.”
  • John Quiggin: “Social and private returns to education are higher than marginal returns to business investment.”

One of those who disagreed – Professor Rodney Maddock (who will be speaking at Community Colleges Australia’s Annual Conference in Melbourne in July) – cautioned that, “I do not expect any payoff from increased educational spending unless there are very significant reforms to the system.” In other words, it’s not just about investment, but also about how the system uses that investment.

Jessica Irvine, senior economics writer for Fairfax Media, agrees with focussing on education investment:

Much of Australia’s low-hanging fruit has been picked when it comes to economic reform. We’ve floated the dollar, privatised the banks, deregulated the labour market. There’s less obvious work for government to do to reform the economy. But if I had to nominate the remaining lowest-hanging fruit, it’s spending money to help disadvantaged students get the best out of their education. Kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds are our greatest untapped source of potential growth. They are our most undervalued stock.

Irvine’s prescription:

Want to innovate? Educate. Want to create the jobs of the future? Educate. Want more tax revenue? Educate. Investments in our human capital offer the best returns around.

In May 2016, writing in The Guardian Australia, former Citibank Chief Economist Stephen Koukoulas stated:

The relationship between educational attainment and growth and income is a given. The more skilled and educated a workforce, the better off is the economy and the population. The consequences for countries with a poorly trained workforce are devastating. Australia saw this just prior to the global financial crisis in 2007-08 when the economy ran out of suitably educated people. The “skills shortage”, as it became known, meant that rapidly expanding companies could not find the people needed to work in their bigger and better businesses.

Koukoulas accurately predicted how and why the Coalition Government might turn to investing in skills:

In the period from the end of 2005 to the start of 2009, unemployment hovered around a 30-year low at between 4-5%. In human terms this was around 450,000 to 500,000 people. None of these half a million people had the skills required in a strong economy, so businesses had to resort to hiring foreign workers. While this was appropriate at that time of unforeseen economic strength, it overlooked the issue that the education and training system allowed 450,000 people in the workforce to remain unemployed despite the unprecedented demand for labour.

Fast forward just 11 months to April 2017: The ABC recently reported that the “May budget will establish a training fund worth $300 million, funded by visa charges. This will sit alongside a bigger focus on vocational and non-university skills training.” This announcement is set in the context of abolishing the “457 temporary work visas” and introducing new language and skills testing for foreigners who seek to work in Australia.

So investing in vocational education and training appears to be on the Coalition’s agenda, although (apparently) tied to new immigration rules. Next week’s budget will reveal how much.

(Note: I originally published this article on 27 April 2017, under the title “Investment in Training Back on the National Agenda”, on the Community Colleges Australia website.)


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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