On Wednesday, WAtoday shared the story of the Shaw family.
Dave Shaw was made redundant from a struggling business in Perth’s parched manufacturing and building sectors in March.
Despite a blameless career in manufacturing engineering spanning three decades, he has faced an agonising and fruitless search for work over four months.
But that’s only half the story – the other half is his wife Ann Shaw. She is the human face of the group crushingly termed “underemployed” by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
These are the people getting some work, but not enough, and who must constantly look for more.
When she’s not working or looking for work Ann is examining the family budget, trying to find a way to save the house.
Mrs Shaw has been in the workforce for 35 years. A registered nurse, she has worked in hospitals, mental health facilities, disability services and aged care. Eventually her communication skills got her work in management, then lecturing, training and assessing.
She has a Bachelor of Arts, a Graduate Diploma of Health Science and a pile of certificates and diplomas in adult education, training, coaching and mentoring.
But training organisations are overwhelmingly taking on only casuals and in recent months she has been able to get only a handful of shifts.
It could not have been a worse time for her husband of 17 years to call with the news he had been made redundant.
“I felt sick in the stomach,” she said. “I just thought, what chance do we have?”
But they tried to be positive. Ms Shaw continued to update her CV, crafting each application, talking to friends and ‘networking’. She keeps her ear to the ground.
She hears nothing.
“I haven’t had any calls back. I get the automatic email. There’s never any feedback given,” she said.
“I have over 35 years’ experience in the workforce, managing people and coordinating. I thought I had a lot to offer. But I feel obsolete.”
She fears their friends have internalised the picture of the unemployed as welfare-cheats, that they view her as a failure.
“It’s like a cancer diagnosis. Like we’ve received a death sentence and maybe they can’t cope so they just ignore it,” she said.
“People have no way to understand. They don’t even want to imagine what it would be like.
“They say, take a lower paid job, lower your sights. Knock some qualifications off the CV. Dumb it down. We’ve tried all that. And I’m not comfortable at all with dumbing your CV down, it’s a lie. And it’s difficult after 35 years in the workforce. If you take things off then there are gaps.”
Mrs Shaw has made it to interview stage twice.
“For one I was qualified to a T. I had to chase them for a follow-up on the interview. And they said the other person was better qualified,” she said.
“I was facing a panel with two 30-year-olds. I’m old enough to be their mother.
“I’m secure in my performance and my knowledge; I know I’m IT-literate, a quick learner, but I wonder what they think of me. Do they think I’m IT-illiterate? Will I be quick with new concepts? Am I set in my ways? Am I an old biddy?
“Sometimes I feel like that when I am lecturing 18 and 20-year-olds – they look at me like I’m their grandmother. That doesn’t bother me, because I am imparting knowledge to them, but I’m human and ... there’s so much in the press about being on the shelf if you are over 50.”
Meanwhile, the bills are in. Car rego, power, car insurance, home insurance. Government school fees. The family is running out of savings and faces the Centrelink queue within weeks. But the Newstart unemployment benefit is well below the age pension and will not cover basic living costs.
“You work through your life, you pay your taxes and now we look at being thrown out,” Mrs Shaw said.
“It’s a modest home, it’s not a McMansion, but we’ve worked on it for 14 years. We gutted the place, we redid the bathroom, we’ve put a lot of work into the garden. It’s where our girls have grown up, it’s our home.
“But I think we will have to sell up. We’ll lose it, and it’s constantly going through my head, how can we make the best of this? What can we do? It gives me a headache, there doesn’t seem to be a way out.”
In this climate, their two girls are facing their own careers and choosing ATAR subjects. The youngest is facing having to give up her ballet class.
“My youngest can be tearful at times,” Mrs Shaw said.
“She can feel the feeling in the house. They don’t want to ask us for things ... they take on the responsibility for this when it’s not their responsibility. I think they will always remember this time."
Their parents are trying to give them a realistic picture of the world, but not a bleak one. They are trying to shield the girls from anxiety. They agreed to these interviews in an effort to reduce stigma around underemployment and unemployment.
“Sometimes I have a positive attitude and others I just feel sick," Mrs Shaw said.
"You think it can’t happen to you. But it’s happening. Now that the shoe is on the other foot for myself and my family, I understand so much more about people's struggle to live when placed in the awful place of being reliant on welfare.”