11 February 2012
By Tony Shepherd
President, Business Council of Australia
Australia’s economy may be facing a rough period in 2012, but the changing nature of our job market should be a cause for optimism.
A bigger proportion of working-age Australians are in work now than 20 years ago because the system accommodates those that want to mix and match their work and home life.
As the economy has modernised there have been huge changes in what it means to have a job. Traditionally for most of us this still means a permanent, nine-to-five full-time position. But an increasing number of Australians are working in ways that suit particular times in their lives.
And employers want the flexibility to ensure they have the right people working at the right times so they are productive, innovative and flexible, can stay competitive and meet their customers’ demands.
Mums and dads are increasingly able to balance working with managing the kids, and the ability of students to earn some money while finishing their study by working casual shifts in bars, for example, has become commonplace.
Older workers are also seeking more flexible working arrangements to balance their work–life priorities. People with long commute times also want different ways of working.
As more small businesses provide everything from home spray-tanning and dog walking, to plumbing and computer repairs there has been a rise in the number of people choosing to work from contract to contract, and from job to job, either for their own business or as individuals.
Let’s be clear, many people still face barriers to secure employment and this can lead to lifelong disadvantages.
Young people leaving school without basic literacy and numeracy skills, older workers, people with disabilities and indigenous Australians are all more likely to experience disadvantages in the labour market. But this is not a reason to stunt the growth in alternative working arrangements.
What is being described as insecure work arrangements is in reality not an issue for most people.
Take casual work, for example. Some 40 per cent of all casual employees are under 25 and most are still at school or taking post-secondary studies.
Research confirms that casual jobs are often a stepping stone to ongoing employment. Around 30 per cent of casual employees move to non-casual employment after 12 months – almost a half do so after three years. And 40 per cent that do stay with the same employer.
By far the largest number of new jobs created in the noughties (1.65 million out of 2.4 million) have been ongoing full-time and part-time jobs. Casual jobs have barely increased their share of total employment in almost two decades.
The big story of recent decades has been the rate of growth of part-time jobs, now accounting for 30 per cent of all employment.
This has been beneficial for many Australians – including married women, older workers and people with disabilities.
It has also given Australian firms and industries greater capacity to adapt to changing technologies and increasing global competition.
This flexibility was a key factor in protecting jobs during the global financial crisis when, without the ability to reduce working hours, many firms would have had to sack employees.
Far from being a source of insecurity, our changing labour market has provided the foundation for the nation’s wealth to be shared more broadly.