Opinion article

Are disadvantaged young Australians at risk of being excluded from future jobs?

Disadvantaged young Australians are at risk of being left behind in the future economy, writes The Smith Family CEO, Dr Lisa O'Brien.

The world of work is changing rapidly with many jobs of the future yet to be imagined. It’s a massive shift for our economy and, in particular, for our emerging workforce as young Australians consider their transition from school to further study or employment.

They can no longer anticipate a linear progression to a full time entry-level job, as experienced by earlier generations. On current trends, work will be increasingly part-time, casual and unstable, requiring changed mindsets and skill sets for young people navigating the labour market.

Disproportionate numbers of young people are being affected by these seismic changes, as evidenced by the current youth employment statistics that show more than 650,000 young people are unemployed or underemployed.

Research shows that disadvantaged young Australians – the cohort The Smith Family works with – are particularly at risk of being excluded from future jobs.

Disadvantaged young Australians are less likely to complete Year 12, an achievement that is critical for young people in the 21st century economy. Those who complete school have a greater likelihood of being employed throughout their adult life and are less likely to be reliant on welfare compared to their peers who leave school early.

The evidence from our work over many years demonstrates the value in engaging students in post-school planning and aspiration building early in their education. We know that children start to rule out options at an early age because of a range of unconscious influences that typecast occupations. Once these limits are set, individuals will rarely consider broader alternatives. 

Children from lower-socioeconomic households may also lack the wider social connections enabling them to fully explore the world of work. This makes the career guidance they receive even more important in assisting them to develop ambitious and realistic aspirations for their future. So we need to start this work early and maintain a focus on it.

The recent report from the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools recommends a national review of senior secondary schooling, which is critical to ensure a reshaping of the system. Career education is a key part of secondary schooling as it prepares students for the transition into employment.

International research shows access to a range of career-focused activities and career conversations in the high school years has a positive impact on young people’s engagement in post-school employment, further education and training. Opportunities for meaningful work experience through industry mentors and partnerships can help prepare students for this new world, particularly disadvantaged students who may not have these connections in their own networks.

Programs like the Business Council of Australia (BCA) supported Cadetship to Career offer great hope for the types of models we can look to. Open to tertiary students supported by The Smith Family, the initiative offers some paid employment, training in skills that are increasingly valued by employers, the opportunity to meet industry contacts, a fuller resume in a tough employment market, and the prospect of being offered a graduate role when studies are completed.

Organisations like ours play an important role in brokering these relationships between disadvantaged young people and business. In doing so, we help provide students with access to valuable social, economic and cultural capital, a known enabler of positive post-school transitions.

It is clear, however, that these kind of partnerships must be embedded within the wider school system if we are to make access to opportunities equitable across the nation. 

All young people, but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, need support to start thinking and planning for their future jobs early. They need help to develop networks with industry and business sectors. As they deepen their understanding of career pathways, they can take the right steps to achieve their aspirations.

Supporting them will take a community-wide commitment that will ultimately drive benefits beyond the immediate positive impact on these young Australians. The economic future of our nation depends upon all of us making sure as few as possible are left behind.
About the authors

Lisa O'Brien

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Dr Lisa O’Brien is chief executive of children’s education charity The Smith Family and was a panel member of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools. 

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