Monday, 21 January 2013

The Idle Unemployment System

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This piece was first published in May 2011. Nearly two years on, some of the minor details might have changed, but the problems in the system remain the same. 

A lot has been said in recent times about Australia’s skills shortage and the so-called idle unemployed. Julia Gillard’s recent declaration of war against idleness saw her call on the unemployed to “pull their weight” and not give into welfare dependency. 

The Prime Minister also referred to the skills shortage in Australia, particularly in the mining industry, triggering yet more predictable commentary and talkback about companies screaming for staff while dole bludgers sit on their arses.

As one of these so-called dole bludgers, I was disappointed by the PM’s speech because it endorsed the myth that anyone on unemployment benefits can get a job, any job, if they really wanted to. 

The reality is most unemployed people want to work, but find themselves hamstrung by a system that only seems to exist to catch out those who don’t. 

What gets lost during such debate is the difference between skilled and willing workers.

A few days after the PM’s speech, 7.30’s Leigh Sales visited the Queensland mining town of Roma, where there’s a shortage of people available to work in town or the surrounding mines.

The story echoed calls to expand the 457 work visa scheme, which gives foreign nationals limited residency in order to work in Australia. According to employers, the 457 Visa is necessary because there is a lack of skilled workers in Australia. As is often the case, this was misinterpreted as a shortage of Australians willing to do the work.

Australia’s labour shortage is a myth. The problem with Australia’s labour market is few employers are willing to offer on-the-job training to build their skill base. 

These days you need a TAFE certificate for jobs that you once were able to score simply by showing a willingness to work. Basic labouring jobs in the mining and construction industry require various certificates, licences and safety qualifications, which prevent many suitable people from applying.

Even holding a stop-and-go sign requires a “traffic control licence” and “white card”, which require a one-day course to obtain, at a cost of around $380. That’s a lot of money for someone getting roughly $560 a fortnight. Even if you get these credentials you’re then faced with employers requiring at least six month’s experience.

It’s little wonder that people aren’t jumping on planes to work in the mining industry when a job ad for unskilled labour work at mines on WA’s Pilbara Coast specifies:

Experience in working within a mining, industrial or construction environment (essential).

A CSA White/ Blue card

Working at Height Certificate

Confined Space Certificate 

How many people in Melbourne have all that?

If employers are so desperate why don’t they provide induction training for suitable recruits to gain these tickets as part of their contract? 

True, obtaining such qualifications is simply an investment in one’s future. However, for someone looking for a job, any job, spending money on a particular course is putting all their eggs in the one basket with no guarantee of employment. 

That traffic control licence is useless for a storeman job requiring a forklift licence or a security gig requiring an RSA certificate. 

In signalling the fight against idleness, the Prime Minister said the government would spend more on adult education. However, further funding would be futile unless it’s used to encourage companies to provide training to new employees. I’m not talking about putting people through university. Just making it a little easier for people willing to do anything. 

At the very least, the government should widen the eligibility rules to encourage more unemployed people to undertake training that enhances the skills they already have.

At present, you’re not entitled to any government assistance to receive vocational training, unless it’s for a standard of education higher than you have already achieved.

So, if you’re degree qualified and find yourself out of work, you won’t get any assistance to do a diploma or certificate to help transfer your skills. Such courses can costs thousands of dollars.

Having to undergo training for the sake of it is not the only issue hampering job seekers. What’s particularly difficult is trying to let employers know about the skills that can be brought to a job in lieu of experience. This isn’t easy if the only way to present yourself is with a resume.

Even when you’re perfectly suited to a job it can be a lottery to just score an interview. All you want is to be able to sit with someone who can assess your skills and put you forward to potential employers. 

This used to happen with Centrelink’s predecessor the Commonwealth Employment Services (CES). The CES was a one-stop shop where you’d claim unemployment benefits and have access to partitions filled with cards featuring job vacancies.

When you saw something you were interested in you’d sit down with a CES staff member who’d put you forward for the job if your credentials matched even if you didn’t have the experience. Under that system I always found work before I had a chance to claim a dole payment. But now you’re shipped off to the privately run job networks that to do everything but actually find you a job.

Of course 99 per cent of the job search happens away from Centrelink and associated job network agencies. As more and more companies use recruitment agencies to find staff, this presents myriad new reasons to slam your head against your desk. Try and get in touch with a recruitment consultant to discuss how your skills can be of use to their clients. If they’re not in a meeting, you generally get a rushed “send in your resume”. Of course they won’t read it, because you didn’t get a chance to explain to them how several years as a magazine editor and a previous career as an electrician can be relevant to a project management position in the building industry. And don’t bother calling a recruitment consultant to follow up a job application. That just expedites the rejection email. 

Before my stint on the unemployment scrap heap I was one of those who refused to believe that people couldn’t find work if they really tried. 

Several months in, I understand the many hurdles that are in place and how on some days you don’t have the will to jump them. 

Working is easier than looking for work, which involves hours of searching, writing job applications and filling in inflexible online applications. 

You spend four hours on a job application, only to receive a generic knock-back email an hour later.

You endure the rejections that come after acing interviews for a great gig, which you later find out was always going to go to a particular internal applicant or the boss’s sister-in-law (true story). Then there’s the 70 per cent of applications that don’t get any response or the HR people who never call back.

Or the days when you scrounge around for change for a train ticket, dress up and go into town for an interview only to be told the position has been filled or withdrawn when you get there.

And I haven’t even mentioned when you’re put through the soul-sucking ringer by Centrelink, where huge slabs of your day are spent in queues or on hold on one of their putrid green phones where you’re practically begging for your $280 per week. 

All this while everyone from Julia Gillard to John-from-Croydon is telling you to get off your arse and stop claiming welfare that’s better used to pay working families their baby bonus.

No one is owed a living. But if the government is going to run the unemployed-should-pull-their-weight line, it needs find new ways to lighten the load.

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David Bonnici

David Bonnici is a journalist, editor and blogger at

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