8 June 2016
I’m not convinced that the rhetoric of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on jobs and the so-called “new economy” means much at all. He can speak about new opportunities here as much as he likes. But I care more about what’s missing from this rhetoric.
Turnbull doesn’t say what sorts of workers are needed for this new economy’s jobs. Does he mean jobs only for skilled workers, or jobs open to those with little or poor skills?
I should know about the issue of skilled workers. I’ve spent much of the last decade or so in and out of work, and thus on and off unemployment benefits, or the dole for short. I often had work which wasn’t good enough for me to be able to afford to get off the dole, and even studying to get “skilled” and doing unpaid voluntary work didn’t help me. As such, my frustrations in looking for work are strong in my mind.
In terms of my career, here’s my story dating back just over a decade, to the middle of 2005.
At that time, having been on the dole for a few months after being retrenched, I was at an appointment with Centrelink, the governmental body responsible for welfare payments and services. The appointment was a discussion on my efforts to find work, and what assistance I might need. During the appointment, I browsed a folder with information about courses of training available to dole recipients like myself.
Since finishing school, with results too poor to qualify me for entry into university, I’d never really been interested in further education, because I doubted that it’d help me, and for years mine was a checkered career, which included long stints out of work. But at that Centrelink appointment in 2005, one course of training caught my eye.
It was a course in payroll, at an inner city college of technical and further education – TAFE for short. Criticially, under a governmental arrangement, it was free for welfare recipients, many of whom might never have considered it if they’d been required to pay for it. And I doubt that it would’ve been organised if workers with payroll skills weren’t rated as sought after by employers. Anyway, I saw it as an opportunity to learn new skills, and a step up from office administration and data processing, which I’d done for most of my career. When I sought more details on this course and told an organiser my story, the organiser told me that I was the sort of person whom the course was aimed at, and I was accepted into the course.
But while I enjoyed doing it, when I was applying for payroll jobs, I discovered a different truth altogether. I found that employers only wanted skills learnt in workplaces, and not in classrooms. So my study was pointless, because it didn’t get me a job. Far from being “skilled”, I was no better off than before studying. And this had been a TAFE course, which should’ve looked like half-decent education. If doing a TAFE course didn’t me a job, what use was going to university? And how do you get workplace skills outside a workplace? I was needing a job to get experience, yet needing experience to get a job.
I found work a few months after finishing my TAFE course, but it was unrelated to what I’d studied, and it only lasted about a year. From then until late last year, beyond a totally different job as a driver of disabled schoolchildren, I could find no more than a handful of temporary assignments and short-term contract jobs, which gave me hardly any financial security.
In 2008, while out of work again, I was talked into doing another course of study, this time in bookkeeping, but the result was the same – no work without workplace skills, which I couldn’t get through studying. Now I’ve sworn off studying, and I don’t care if I never study again.
After completing my bookkeeping course, I did unpaid voluntary work at some small businesses, in order to gain some workplace skills. But even this didn’t help me.
How many other jobless people have similar stories of showing initiative in studying or doing voluntary work, for the sake of doing something instead of sitting around on their backsides, yet getting no reward for their efforts?
I believe that employers are too picky about what skills and experience they seek. Because people change jobs more frequently than they used to, employers are understandably reluctant to spend money on training workers who promptly move on, sometimes to work for employers’ rivals, whether friendly or unfriendly. Employers in small businesses in particular can’t afford to “throw away” as much money as bigger corporations. But how do poorly-skilled workers get “skilled”, when employers won’t train them and often don’t look favourably upon “skills” acquired through study? Employers have no business – if you’ll pardon the pun – in demanding skilled workers if they insist on someone else training them.
Only once in the last decade do I remember any industry representative or leader publicly implying employment opportunities for those lacking skills. It was around 2007 or so when I saw a television story featuring a senior figure in the mining industry, which was then in a boom period. I don’t recall exactly who the mining industry figure was, or what he said, but in appealing for workers he was effectively saying, “Don’t worry if you haven’t got the necessary skills or experience – we will train you.”
No other industry leader has ever said anything like that since then. Nobody has made that kind of appeal for workers, whatever their skills. And right now, despite banging on about new opportunities, Turnbull’s not saying whether they’re only open to skilled workers.
However the economy transforms, jobs are needed for the jobless, especially those lacking skills. Someone must take responsibility for training the poorly-skilled, or they’ll get nothing from the new economy.