An economy in transition but without aspiration for young people?
Over the last few weeks, I’ve accompanied the National Youth Commission (NYC) on its public hearing trail throughout Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria. The social and economic challenges faced by young people across these states are numerous and diverse, but coherent themes are quickly emerging.
From powerful personal testimony, to large-scale data analysis, to theoretical and philosophical foundations, evidence was put forward by young people, educators, policy-makers, researchers, students, jobseekers, service providers, and school principals.
It is becoming clear to me that youth unemployment and transitions sit at the nexus between some of our most wicked and entrenched policy problems. Australia’s young people are increasingly experiencing insecurity in the labour market. Our public institutions, once heralded for their capacity to improve the future prospects of young people, are plagued by poor policy architecture and the whims of political footballers.
An economy in transition, with an education and training system lumbering slowly behind, has left many of our young people without aspiration, opportunity or capacity. But this deficit trifecta is far from uniform across Australia. The hearings clearly demonstrated to me the disparate nature of inequality across regional, rural and metro regions, and the tendency for disadvantage to compound.
What are the major concerns?
Of central concern to the NYC Inquiry thus far has been the education and training sector. It is evident that Australia is experiencing a mismatch between the skills being provided and those sought by employers.
This speaks to a broader communication problem between schools and employers, sparking discussion about the need for ‘brokers’ between industry and educators, and the effectiveness of existing mechanisms, such as partnership endeavors like the Local Learning and Employment Networks (LLENs) in Victoria, or third party organisations like the Beacon Foundation.
This also speaks to the quality of careers planning within schools: school-based career planning services have consistently been framed throughout the public hearings as ineffective and tokenistic. Simultaneously, we are seeing increased reports of mental health issues in school settings.
Overemphasis on standardised tests such as ATAR and NAPLAN by employers, parents and schools has produced a false dichotomy between student welfare and academic results: young people are suffering as a result.
Skills gap in the future economy
The skills mismatch is also in part due to the shifting nature of Australia’s economy. The decline in manufacturing and increase in casual contracting has altered conventional pathways for school-leavers. The labour market is placing a higher premium on ‘soft skills’, that can translate within and across industries.
At the same time, we are experiencing a labour shortage in many crucial trades. This shortage is a massive challenge in itself, reflecting the declining public confidence in VET that has come with privatisation of the sector, and the failure of schools and careers practitioners to promote non-university pathways to students. In conjunction with the preferencing of university education, non-university pathways are often misunderstood, poorly coordinated and underutilised.
Government services failing young people
Moving away from education, the hearings revealed little positivity about the JobActive system. Its punitive compliance system has proved ineffective in getting young people into sustainable work, and its evaluative metrics do not incentivise collaboration between service providers.
Our most disadvantaged young people are being systematically excluded as a result. How can I get a job if I do not have a license? How can I get a license if I am homeless? How can I find a home if I am suffering from a mental illness? From my understanding, there is a huge need for more individualised specialist support.
That being said, there is much to learn from employment services such as PaTH, which provides more holistic pathway support for young people in transition. Any discussion about employment services must also be framed by a review of our welfare support system, which has been consistently described throughout the hearings as inadequate. This inadequacy is facilitating profound disadvantage for many of our young people.
What is Australia’s vision for young people?
Underneath these technical issues sit fundamental ideology and policy questions. Australia has lacked a coherent national youth framework or strategy since the Gillard Government. This has led to a shift from strengths-based approaches in policy design, towards models which highlight deficit, addressing young people as a problem to be ‘fixed’. It should come as no surprise that this has coincided with a reduced sense of social cohesion and increased educational disengagement.
A conversation needs to happen about the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government. Who is best positioned to design and deliver what policy? Our employment, education and welfare systems all seem to me to be top-heavy in design.
The endless pilot projects with little progress point to a need for national leadership, but with local freedom to innovate. Place-based policy design, attuned to local social, industrial and educational contexts undoubtedly promises nuance and community revitalisation.
Central to this is the need for genuine policy co-design. Young people must be brought into decision-making frameworks if we are to improve their employment and education outcomes. Similar nuance is required when implementing policy incentives in the community sector.
The hearings demonstrated to me how silo-thinking has led to welfare gaps. If we are going to commit to a political ideology of ‘small government’, we must ensure that service providers are accountable in constructive and holistic ways. Equality of opportunity is at stake.
So what can we do?
All of the above is just a snapshot of the discussions we’ve been having over the last few weeks. By taking a bottom-up approach, the NYC is striving to understand the multiplicity of experiences and challenges that accompany unemployment and underemployment. The success of an endeavor like the NYC is contingent on its reach – so please reach out, make a submission, and spread the word.
While we have accumulated a broad variety of expertise and testimony, some gaps persist in the Inquiry’s reach. I particularly want to hear more from young people coming out of the justice system, young people experiencing discrimination in the workplace, undergraduate students finding work alongside and after their studies, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people seeking work or study, and educators from both private and public schools.