Answers to Unemployment…Or Is It That Simple?

Talking with some contacts lately, I was challenged to offer solutions to the unemployment situation facing Australia. Instead of writing an exhaustive synopsis of my thoughts there, I have decided to put something together here. Now, not being in any sort of position of influence, the ideas I have are just that; ideas. However, the exposing of a few home truths, facts and open-eyed revelations can be the catalyst of influence…or at least that is the hope.

At present, unemployment sits at around 5.4% or roughly 660,000 people of a Participation figure (those of an employable age either working or looking for work) of around 12.1 million people. This figure, statistically and historically speaking, is relatively low, but nowhere near the definitions of ‘full employment’ (between 2-3% unemployment). Even coming off the back of a global fiscal downturn, Australia seems to be doing OK.

Say that, though, to the 660,000-odd people out of work, as well as a sizable number considered employed, but under-utilised (the under-employment we hear about sometimes). How then do we address this situation and increase employment?

The simple answer is of course ‘get a job’, and it is the carelessness of that comment which embeds itself into the overall psyche of the average un(der)employed person causing frustration and feelings of worthlessness. It also is very easy to say, but not so easy to implement.

So what is the answer? Simple: there is no clear answer. There is no magic wand; no cure-all that that will instantaneously resolve unemployment. There is, however, things that can be done, on both sides of the fence to help better a person’s lot.

Idea 1 – JSA and Advocacy

Now, step back a bit to a  little bit of history of myself. At the turn of the century, I worked for a then-Job Network member (now Job Services Australia) in the old Hunter Valley mining hub of Maitland. Mining had long-since moved further up the Valley, and now Maitland was in a flux. A still-burgeoning population, but with diminishing employment opportunities, the unemployment rate was in the 20% range and coupled with this were increasing situations of generational unemployment – that is people had not experienced their parents working, much less themselves. An unreliable train service could connect them with the larger centre of Newcastle, some 40 minutes away, but with irregular timetables, it was hard to judge it’s worthiness.

So people were stuck in the city itself, and in the middle were several JN providers. Here we were given responsibility to not only find work for these people, but make sure they had the basics covered and were able to work. We are indeed talking the basics here – proper hygiene, clothing, communication skills, simple job searching techniques, including use of online job-boards and similar and most importantly, attitude. The problem was there were plenty of good people looking for work who had for one reason or another been unable to find any. They just needed a break. Often, they would become despondent and often I would have to counsel people, trying to encourage them, get them to carry on. On occasions, we were incredibly saddened to learn that a couple of our clients had committed suicide due to the overwhelming depression unemployment caused. This was the desperation in this city, and it made the job incredibly difficult and heart-breaking. But we plugged on. We turned around the lives of many, many people. We got them into work, and they flourished as a result. In the face of this desperation, it was wonderful to see so many lives changed.

How did we do that? We simply did the basics. We talked, we listened, we understood. We found where their strengths lie and played to them. We found the roles, advocated to employers and made sure these people were given the best opportunities.

Therein lies one idea to get the unemployed back to work: give them a voice. Far too long, the unemployed have been silent, there has really been no one to advocate or to help or to listen. Sure JSA do a great job, but there is only so much they can do, and believe me, the compliance requests from Centrelink make it difficult for them to do a proper job without simply going through the motions – and one major failing of the JN / JSA model is it’s propensity for it to be running the motions, in the name of compliance and failing to actively consult and help. Additionally, they only really assist more long-term unemployed and certainly not the underemployed. We have employer advocates, we have employee advocates in the form of Unions, but where is the voice of the unemployed? A non-government, non-employer-funded advocate would be a fantastic idea.

It also uncovers another problem with the perception of unemployment and the services available to help these. Far too many people are unemployed, but are not ‘officially’ recognised as such. Those that have lost their jobs through redundancy, retrenchment or similar are not considered unemployed until they receive benefits from Centrelink. Until then, they are part of the Participation Rate only. If we are going to be serious in tackling unemployment, we must be fully aware of exactly who is unemployed and how we can help. If we do not recognise those unemployed people whom are not yet part of the official figures, how can we properly deal with it? Let’s be under no illusion, whether you are unemployed for 12 days or 12 months should not make one iota of difference. Issues around self-esteem, anxiety and depression affect people who are unemployed regardless of time, and to properly address this is to fully understand that unemployment does not ‘officially’ start when you receive benefits. So as a result, if we are going to provide advocacy for the unemployed, it should be for all unemployed, and should encompass cross-development with business / business groups to ensure it is a viable option.

Similarly, there is a lack of correlation between businesses and the unemployed it getting recognition of the skills possessed by these unemployed people, and how they can be integrated into any business. There is far too much emphasis on recent work experience, and not enough on long-term, intrinsic or underlying skill sets. I had one client whilst working in Job Network who came from a management background, but had burnt out as a result. By pulling apart his skills we found areas that he enjoyed more than others. It was this we concentrated on and eventually found work that played to these more enjoyable skills. This can be replicated easily for the unemployed. Pull apart your experience, the roles you held in the past, identify what it is that you do well and you enjoy, formulate your resume that highlights these and go to market.

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