Post-COVID world offers a chance for real employment change

OPPORTUNITY: Australia needs change, not just a succession of programs with quippy names. Picture: Shutterstock
OPPORTUNITY: Australia needs change, not just a succession of programs with quippy names. Picture: Shutterstock

The question, "how will COVID change Australia?" was posed at the National Press Club of Australia last week.

Opposition treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers responded with: "It's up to us."

Chalmers went on to echo the words of Jared Diamond by saying: "The most damaging thing to assume is that your country has already peaked ... we can do better than that."

The idea that we are all rushing forward to go back to how things used to be - as if that was such a perfect picture - seems ludicrous now it's been stated so clearly and effortlessly.

Before COVID took over our lives, youth unemployment was at 12.06 per cent; more than half of those receiving unemployment payments were unemployed long term; and 48 per cent of payment recipients were over 45.

There was one job available for every eight people receiving unemployment payments - this is not including the number of people who were not employed and ineligible for payment support.

I had the privilege of speaking with Linda Burney (federal member for Barton) this week, and the pre-existing condition of our labour market was an area we discussed at length.

Ms Burney expressed her frustration (which I shared) in the fact that we could almost be forgiven for thinking that COVID-19 created unemployment in general.

The fact remains that this has been an issue our communities - especially our mature age communities - have been facing for years.

Until this point, survival on $40 a day has been acceptable to the government while the systems in place seem focused on all the wrong things.

How else can you justify running a JobActive system that is meant to be designed to help our vulnerable members of our community recover from job loss and re-enter the workforce, but make it administered by people who are not trained counsellors or careers practitioners, who don't need experience in employment services and only need to bring to the table a driver licence, a Working With Children Check and a Criminal History Check to apply to for the job?

Early on, following the increase to JobSeeker under the banner of COVID support, Scott Morrison said on 2GB: "We can't allow the JobSeeker payment to become an impediment to people going out and doing work."

However, reducing the payment come Christmas will create a greater impediment to people being able to find work, retain housing, access healthcare and provide food for their families.

COVID may have brought us a short-lived increase in the unemployment payment for people doing it tough - as more people join these ranks than in recent history - but it has not brought increased empathy from our government, or changes in the way people in this situation are perceived by those in power.

We need change. Not just a portfolio of programs with quippy names like JobKeeper, JobSeeker, JobTrainer, JobMaker, but real, systemic and cultural change in the way that we address these issues.

For most Australians, life pre-COVID had not peaked. We don't want to return to 12 per cent youth unemployment and increasing joblessness for our mature workers.

We don't want to return to a welfare safety net that leaves you dangling upside down by your foot, caught in the bureaucratic red tape holding it together. We. Want. Better.

Ms Burney agreed that mainstream Australia needs a culture change.

We need to value people for who they are and what they bring to the table, whether they are in employment or not.

Our corporate leadership training programs are all about empowering staff to drive self-efficacy and help them reach their potential.

But our employment support programs are about dumbing people down, squishing square pegs into round holes and bribing businesses through "incentive payments" to hire people who bring genuine value all on their own.

If we don't value our workers when they are out of work, if we need incentives to hire them because we think an older person *might* be a higher hire risk but we're willing to put them on for a few bucks flung our way by the government, all we are doing is making people in this situation feel like rescue hires from the employment pound.

Mr Chalmers was right. How we shape our country from here is up to us. We can do better than this.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocateat impressability.com.au