The imperative to craft a more caring community has never been stronger in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, which has placed the most vulnerable in society in the most precarious of circumstances.
Systems must be set up to help individuals in need, ranging from the unemployed to the elderly, disabled to hard of housing. An expanded social sector, with resources operationalised in part through a more active labour market policy, can play a part in the solution.
Australian labour market policy has, for too long, taken a passive stance on the unemployed.
Under JobActive’s current funding schemes, employment service providers are given no incentive for helping JobSeekers find new career paths through vocational pathways, and therefore are unlikely to suggest and assist unemployed individuals into education.
This is symptomatic of a wider problem in Australia’s employment services system; the unemployed are most often shifted into any job they can find, without any broader career framework. For the long-term unemployed, their employment hopes are systematically ignored as they are less likely to find work and thus do not garner priority attention of job service providers.
Crafting a more practical, long-term unemployment policy can set the precedent for and complement post-COVID national economic goals.
In recent days the Prime Minister has announced a ‘JobMaker’ policy, scant on details but an interesting development for a vocational training sector that has been privatised and obliterated by previous Liberal governments.
Whether we should trust such important policy change to this government is highly contentious, but it somewhat a step in the right direction: Australia must enable its stock of labour to meet demand.
In their recent book ‘Good Economics for Hard Times’, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo discuss the need for refocused social policies that meet demand in sectors less likely to be affected by future structural developments such as automation.
A priority investment area should be Australia’s social sector. Expanding the resources available for the social sector will strengthen local communities that have been ravaged by bushfires and unemployment, in addition to the hugely positive benefit it can have on the lives of participants.
Discussions on post-COVID investment have established a broad consensus that labour-intensive industries should be prioritised.
The social and community sectors are exactly that: the whole point of the sector is to utilise skills in people that cannot possibly be replicated by a machine.
The Australian Community Sector Survey (2019) provides evidence as to how crucial labour resources are to the community sector, with employees detailing the link between labour availability and capacity to meet demand.
Recent trends in funding, however, completely ignore this relationship; increasing demand for services in several social sector areas, such as youth counselling, housing services and elder care is causing current resources to be stretched among more and more caseloads. As such, the Survey reports only 5% of sector employees stating their services could meet demand adequately.
Despite these trends, funding for providers has been cut by governments, particularly federal. This has caused providers to limit the amount and variety of services they can offer, a damaging development for participants who are reaching out to services with increasingly complex needs- 80% of respondents indicated that complexity of cases has been increasing.
Australia has a stock of labour to counteract resource shortages in the social sector. Developing a world-class vocational education system with an emphasis on meeting complex social and community needs is an essential first step in achieving this, but utilising the wide array of skills and lived experiences from unemployed individuals by refocusing our re-employment policy into a more holistic, career-driven service may efficiently increase Australia’s capacity to meet widening social demand and provide valuable help to those who need it the most.
This article is not saying that all long-term unemployed people should be trained and employed in social services. It is instead arguing for a refocused set of employment priorities so that demands can be met by the capacity that currently exists.
There are clearly varying levels of experience one might need to get certain positions in the sector, and I am making no effort to generalise the sector as a singular entity; it is diverse, and different complexities of needs require different skills and people with different lived experiences.
However, it is clear that Australia must begin empowering its social sector to provide valuable assistance to those most in need in our society, for we cannot move forward collectively without bringing everyone along for the ride.