Even before COVID upended the lives of young people, they were already having to face the disruptions of the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) with its changes to the way we work, live and study. Advances in technology and increased automation were making it more difficult for young people to find entry level positions in an already highly competitive job market. It’s hardly surprising that the youth unemployment rate was already twice the national unemployment average pre-COVID. Then with the lockdowns hitting the biggest employers of young people hardest – the hospitality and retail industries – more young people lost their jobs and life became even more uncertain.
So it’s surprising to hear the Government spruiking a national unemployment rate that is falling, but don’t be fooled, it’s not due to signs that job market prospects are looking up. Alison Pennington of the Centre for Future Work has pulled together the unemployment rate and, importantly the underemployment rate, to reveal the underutilization rate. It shows a fifth of the population - 20 per cent - are not working as much as they would like. Young people particularly are taking up casual work and working fewer hours, meaning they don’t get counted in the official statistics as unemployed. Some have reportedly even given up looking for work all together. As Alison puts it in a media interview: “The official unemployment rate is just the tip of the iceberg. Underneath that iceberg is a great chasm of people falling behind in the labour market that's failing to put them into jobs”.
Listening to the Morrison Government you would think the answer to youth unemployment is simple: Young people should make an investment in themselves and undertake a short course in a new skill area. Preferably one that helps plug the gaping skills shortages that have become progressively wider over the last eight years of Liberal governments.
The money that is being shovelled into short courses is astonishing, as if it is the panacea to full employment. But as Professor John Buchan highlighted at the recent 2021 NCVER VET Conference, while everyone is talking of skills shortages and VET reform, the issue of job scarcity remains ignored. We need to be focusing on the real issue of how safe, secure and well-paid jobs for young people will be created.
Yet, in times of high unemployment, it is easy for governments and employers to push the issue back onto workers by selling them the idea they need to get ‘rackable and stackable’ credentials to prove their skills. But, this is doing young people a disservice. These shorter qualifications limit education to the teaching of narrowly defined skill sets. They deny people the broader education they gain from a longer qualification to enable them to deal with the complexities of the modern workplace and become better prepared for their future.
Last month I visited the TAFE SA Giles Plain campus to meet with some of the teachers and students in the Early Education and Care program. I spoke to the students about why they chose a longer TAFE qualification and, not surprisingly, their response was the opportunity to get a well-rounded, high quality education. They valued the learning experience, support services and chance to become part of a community as much as the qualification. They also felt their TAFE course was highly respected in the ECE community. Unfortunately, the SA Government has decided to privatise these courses in Adelaide which means TAFE will no longer provide these courses from next year. These students can no longer undertake a diploma at TAFE after their Certificate III. As one student, Yang Gao studying for her Certificate III, summed up; “Education is not a business. We need qualified and professional educators, who have studied at TAFE” I couldn’t agree more.
On National TAFE day, AEU delegations lobbied MPs to ensure that they understand that TAFE should not be relegated to just another business in a competitive market, but elevated out of the market and respected as the anchor vocational education institution, system or provider, attracting the best of industry to educate future generations and help them prepare and re-imagine their futures.
TAFE must be viewed as repositories of expertise. A vocation takes years of dedicated practice to master and the act of passing down a rich history of knowledge and skills to the next generation should be better appreciated by all governments. TAFE institutes should be cherished as places where communities of practice can flourish and deep knowledge can be developed with a personal touch, rather than tying funding to outcomes or churning out short courses.
The infrastructure is already there, TAFE already has the teaching staff prepared to go the extra mile and the wrap-around services to give personal support to students, get to know them, advocate for them, and assist them on their lifelong, life-wide education journey.
New research by Monash University ‘Life, Disrupted: Young people education and employment before and after COVID-19’ backs up the power of this approach, concluding: “It is our contention that the job of educators is not just about developing in individuals the skills to navigate uncertainty, but to work with our students to imagine and create the conditions for a better, more secure life.”
While the Federal Government continues to push the message that all you need is a quick credential, it’s interesting to look overseas and see that post-secondary colleges like Lambton College in Canada are already pivoting skills training to look beyond Industry 4.0 and take a new direction.
They are questioning the place of machines in society and prioritising humanisation and inclusivity. As a public college they are committed to creating a fairer society by embedding Indigenous knowledge across their curriculum to prepare students for an interdependent world. They are calling this approach Industry 5.0, and supporting their students to redefine the future.
Australia should also be taking this opportunity to redefine our future. We know that society works best when it maximises the potential of all its citizens and there is opportunity for all, so equity should be our top priority as a society. We can make this an equitable and youth based recovery post COVID. It’s just a matter of political will. TAFE is ready to meet this challenge but needs funding and the backing of all governments to do so.
It’s time for a new social contract. One that puts the emphasis on government to provide the conditions for the safe and secure, well-paid jobs of the future. Governments need to leverage fiscal policy to support employment growth and, rather than meddling in VET reform, invest in TAFE to give students a high-quality education and a chance to determine their future.