Opinion article

Low-skilled job seekers facing barriers to work

A recent study by Anglicare Australia into the job market for those facing the greatest barriers to work has found a shortage of low-skilled entry-level jobs with large numbers of candidates competing for each position. Kasy Chambers explains. 

Few doubt the importance of having a secure income. It protects us from living in poverty and allows us to enjoy the benefits of stability. Without a secure income it is hard to live beyond the next pay cheque, plan for the future, or take control of our lives.

Many of us hope to draw a secure income from a secure job. That’s why more and more Australians name unemployment, job security and the search for jobs as the biggest problems facing Australia.

But work offers us more than an income. It is one of the most important ways that we can participate in our communities. For many people, work offers a sense of belonging, security, and identity. It is an anchor that allows us to look after ourselves and our loved ones, pursue our passions, or start a family.

The Anglicare Australia Jobs Availability Snapshot, released this month, shows what the job market is really like for the people who face the greatest barriers to work – those without qualifications or experience, who are trying to re-enter the workforce after a long break, or who are living in regional or remote areas.

We found that these people have been left out of the narrative about jobs in Australia. This is a narrative that assures us we are in the midst of a jobs boom, and that anyone who wants a job should be able to get one.

In our sample month of May 2018, there were 110,735 jobseekers with barriers to work. But low-skill, entry-level jobs comprised just 14 per cent of the jobs advertised, or 25,997 job advertisements out of 185,662.

In other words, between four and five of these people are competing for each of these jobs across Australia. We also found a major drop in the number of low-skilled, entry-level vacancies to just 14 per cent in our Snapshot month.

Worryingly, there is no state or territory where there are enough suitable jobs for the number of people looking for them. The situation is most dire in Tasmania, where a staggering 12 jobseekers are competing for each suitable job.

You might be surprised to hear that these are conservative numbers. More than 1.13 million Australians were underemployed in our sample month, and some of them were likely to be applying for the same positions as entry-level jobseekers.

On top of that, people with barriers to work aren’t just competing with each other. Many are competing with recent graduates, retrenched workers, and other applicants with greater skills who often apply for positions below their skill level. All of this means that competition for low-skilled, entry-level jobs is much stronger than our research shows.

In the face of these findings it is clear that we need major reform of our employment services system. We must move away from a model that entrenches poverty and punishment to one that provides a tailored approach for each person. This approach would work in partnership with people to consider individual circumstances, strengths and aspirations. It would support people into the right training programs and jobs for them. It would also support them stay in employment – a factor that’s crucial for people coming out of long-term unemployment.

There’s a clear need to raise the base rates of Newstart and other payments for people who are unemployed. People seeking work shouldn’t be trapped in poverty while they search for a job, and current rates are so low that they are a barrier to jobseeking in and of themselves.

We must rethink our understanding of work. A paid job is not the only way for people to contribute their communities. The Anglicare Australia Network is assisted by over 9000 volunteers, enriching the community with their expertise and energy. This makes a nonsense of recent changes that have made it harder for older people getting Newstart to volunteer.

And finally, we must start a conversation across the community about creative solutions. This year we’ve used the Snapshot to start a conversation about a Universal Basic Income and a jobs guarantee, calling for an inquiry to explore them in Australia. Innovative ideas like these are badly needed.

As it stands, there is a crisis facing the most vulnerable people in our workforce. If we do not change course, we risk leaving them behind and denying them a stake in our prosperity.

About the authors

Kasy Chambers

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Kasy Chambers is Executive Director of Anglicare Australia. Anglicare Australia is a network of agencies linked to the Anglican church with more than 30,000 staff and volunteers, working with more than one million Australians.

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