In March 2022, the Liberal government released a Workforce Strategy (2022-27) identifying the short- and long-term workforce challenges projected to arise in Australia, and laying out how we should address them. To do this, the government consulted many stakeholder groups, with the exception of perhaps the most important one: job seekers themselves.
The workforce challenges are many and varied, ranging from jobs progressively requiring higher skills, to the role of automation, and an ageing population resulting in a slowed domestic workforce. These issues will emerge differently in different regions of the country, as the demography and core workforce differs from region to region.
It is interesting to look at the skill mismatches between those people engaged with the government's employment services program - we call them the "jobactive caseload" - and the available jobs. For example, 56 per cent of the jobactive caseload in February 2022 held a certificate I/secondary education or lower, but only 13 per cent of the available jobs advertised online were available to these candidates. Of the 1 million new jobs that Australia is projected to need to fill by November 2026, 90 per cent are forecast to require post-secondary school qualifications, including 52.6 per cent requiring a bachelor's degree or higher.
One of the key principles of the National Workforce Strategy is to remove barriers and disincentives to work, to ensure that "all Australians, including those underrepresented, can participate and work to their full capacity in line with their abilities and aspirations". The plan for this is to "encourage workforce participation and prevent dropout by removing barriers to participation, enabling geographic mobility and providing employment incentives".
Key to this process, according to the Workforce Strategy, is to ensure that employment services are outcomes-focused and informed by high-quality data on local employer needs, while engaging industry in the design and delivery of policy and supporting them to play a key role in training and reskilling the workforce.
It seems that employment services providers are going to be the gatekeepers to local and regional workforce development under the new Workforce Australia model set to roll out from July 2022. They will work with employer and training organisations "to support job seekers to develop in-demand skills where they are needed to take up a job".
The strategy recognises that there are many barriers to work, including skill mismatches, work type and associated wages/conditions, regional disadvantages, cultural mindsets, accessible and affordable childcare, broader socio-economic disadvantage and impediments to labour mobility such as housing affordability and availability. It also relies upon industry to design and drive change through promoting opportunities, ensuring career pathways are attractive and "incentivising" people to take up jobs.
Workforce policy development will be supported by various bodies including the Department of Education, skills and Employment, the Department of Home Affairs, National Careers institute and the National Skills Commission, and it will be coordinated by the National Workforce Taskforce. This taskforce will have a strong measurement focus to track progress and facilitate accountability.
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However, throughout the entire strategic plan, there is no mention of local government involvement. I have been a strong advocate for local council-led employment strategies for many years, but have not been able to find the support needed to address this issue on a local level. In order for such a national strategy to have any hope of working, it needs to connect with the local regions and the individual needs and challenges of that geographic location.
Relying on employment services providers to connect with industry and foster employment opportunities has not worked terribly well so far, and it certainly isn't going to work moving forward unless real, accountable and tailored change occurs.
Ask anyone on JobSeeker payments and they will tell you that the kind of work available through jobactive providers is rarely a good skills match to what they have to offer. With 52.6 per cent of their caseload having a Certificate I level education/secondary education level or lower, and only 13 per cent of the advertised jobs being appropriate for them, the employment services provider achieving their new outcomes-based KPIs will be largely driven by a "bums on seats" mentality, where the appropriateness of the placement will be trumped by the need to fill the job for them to get paid.
Building local employment strategies that meet the local needs, in partnership with councils, businesses and training providers - as well as the job seekers themselves - would create a more holistic, dynamic approach to the problem.
Has anyone ever asked the job seekers what they need?
As far as I can tell, job seekers are forever being told what to do, without ever being invited to be a part of this important conversation.
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