Long term unemployed must be a priority for our next government
We’ll hear plenty this month about Australia’s stagnant unemployment rate, but what we should be hearing about is Australia’s long term unemployed number, which paints less of a pretty picture. The Faces of Australia report by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACoSS) and Jobs Australia released last year found the number of people classed as long term unemployed has soared by around 25 percent since the 1990s. Australia also spends less than half the OECD average on employment services and has some of the strictest activity requirements for jobseekers among the OECD.
It has been acknowledged the system is awry. In March the Coalition announced it was testing a new platform in Adelaide and NSW that will allow jobseekers to apply for roles using their smartphone or PC via a self-service digital portal, and will also reduce the current requirement for unemployed people to apply for 20 positions a month - a stipulation that been criticised for swamping employers with irrelevant applications and putting jobseekers through an ineffective box ticking exercise. Under the newly proposed system, job seeking activity will instead be assessed by engagement in training opportunities and work experience placements.
This is a welcome change for people who are comfortable using technology, but doesn’t at all help those who are most vulnerable and at risk of being left behind.
What we’re not seeing are broader changes that deal with the actual transition to employment, which for many is like moving from one world to another. Instead, the system favours keeping score of ‘placements’, whether in work or training. This essentially puts the cart before the horse and misses the ultimate objective of long term, sustainable employment that lifts people out of distress and poverty.
We’re not ‘getting’ jobseekers
The biggest hurdle for most jobseekers is not their ability to perform a job, but their sense of self-worth and being able to make the transition from a world of unemployment to sustainable work.
Long term unemployment is usually the result of many compounding and overwhelming life challenges, all of which cause self-esteem to spiral.
This is made worse by society viewing jobseekers as a problem. What ‘outsiders’ and job agencies see are people who aren’t qualified, who don’t show up for interviews, who behave disrespectfully or walk off the job. They don’t see the ‘why’ behind a person behaving in such a way.
For the long term unemployed, the reasons leading to that situation are highly diverse, individual and complex - things like illness, abuse, relationship breakdown, migration or asylum, discrimination and bullying, retrenchment from work, among others. These are at the core of a person’s ability to find and keep a job, and the impact of this is felt not only on our welfare system but also our health system. A recent submission to the Senate Enquiry for the Future of Work and Workers presented evidence showing that it is not access to new opportunities to work but access to meaningful work and avoidance of the feeling of being left behind that is strongly related to increasing obesity and preventable chronic disease.
What we need are ruthlessly client-centric employment services that focus on addressing an individual’s unique circumstances and rebuilding a person’s sense of self-worth and relationship in order to support their transition.
Taking a client-centric approach
Some regional centres like Ballarat are already exploring a client centric approach by making use of new technologies to not only drive efficiencies, but to help case managers and jobseekers establish a platform of understanding and mutually find a positive way forward.
One of these trials is taking in cohorts of long term unemployed - often the ‘toughest cases’ - and using Gooroo’s ColourGrid™ to work out how to best apply their mind to making the transition. The technology helps to understand how a person makes decisions and which scenarios they will thrive in – it is not a personality test. The jobseeker comes away with something intrinsic to them, a sense of being. They are also guided on how that might manifest in work. It is not job matching per se, but there is guidance in the form of ‘that sort of thinking could be applied in X,Y,Z scenarios’. The aim is to provide choices and help the jobseeker feel inspired to action. With support, this then opens the door to suitable training, education or work experience that is both meaningful and avoids their sense of being left behind. It goes without saying this approach is far more empowering than forcing a person to apply for a job they’re not suited to and facing the inevitable rejection – or silence.
Only once you start restoring a person’s self-worth by giving them back a sense of individuality and potential for what they are capable of, will they be open to understanding the rules of work and transitioning into ‘our world’.
Changing employer perceptions
We also need to support employers to better understand the jobseeker’s position, so they are invested in taking that person on.
Current employer incentives have had unintended consequences – including employment service providers receiving multiple payments for placing the same unemployed person in different jobs. This leads to jobseekers being placed into insecure work repeatedly, which maintains the cycle of welfare dependence and poor self-worth.
For every jobseeker that is supported, we must invest equal time and resource into educating the training organisation or employer that eventually takes them on. An employer needs to understand the individual and how to support them through a tough transition. From a position of understanding and respect - rather than a transactional relationship - the employer will become more invested in the jobseeker’s journey, leading to better engagement, monitoring of the person’s progress, and overall outcome. There is also great potential for this form of learning and the cultural switch it ignites to benefit the employer through new ways of thinking.
Bring flexibility and integration to ‘mutual obligation’
The existing requirement for ‘mutual obligation’ also needs amending. Requiring someone complete a training course, before understanding what an individual needs, is perpetuating a rigid system build around process, not outcomes.
While removing the 20 applications per week rule is a positive step, in future the program needs flexibility to work with jobseekers to develop a personalised, realistic commitment. For some, that might be trying some volunteer work and talking to someone already in a particular job as a first commitment, which then gets redefined as the person progresses. This approach requires an integrated system. Once you have individual engagement, you can start to curate relevant education, training and employment options. We have terrific services available already, but they are piecemeal. We don't need to remove the obligation, but we do need to give it more flexibility and collaboration to be meaningful for individuals and employers alike.
For long term unemployed, job seeking is not about clicking ‘apply’. It is a transition into a new world. For any future iteration of Jobactive to work, it must be people driven, not process driven. Here’s hoping this is election is a turning point that gives jobseekers back their sense of self-worth and empowers them toward a better future.