Skills, training, opportunities crucial to filling the jobs gap

This opinion article by chief executive of the Business Council Jennifer Westacott and SEEK chief operating officer Ian Narev was published in The Australian on Monday 27 July 2020

By Christmas there are likely to be around 1.2 million people without jobs, and many more who are underemployed. Many will worry whether they have the digital skills to find a job as technology transforms workplaces and the way we do business. Others would not have been born the last time Australia was dragged into a recession.

Businesses and governments are focusing on creating jobs and keeping people in them. We also need to focus on helping people qualify for and find the jobs that are available now and into the future.

The skills system has an enormous role to play. If we don’t make it easier for people to learn new skills and be job ready, we will leave more people behind. School leavers and graduates shouldn’t be left to drift; we shouldn’t be making it harder for those prised out of jobs to re-enter the workforce; and we cannot allow a repeat of the last recession where many of those aged over 55 never found work again.

The first immediate, and ongoing, task is to gather and analyse comprehensive data on the job market with a specific focus on skills, rather than just job types or titles. This means understanding the skills make up of people who have lost their jobs, including those on JobSeeker and on JobKeeper who have been stood down, mapping those skills against the demand for specific skills in the job market, and identifying gaps. We already have valuable data pools to help with this endeavour. We can supplement those by asking jobseekers to create and update skills profiles.

We then need to build greater awareness of, and in some cases uniquely curate, short courses that are designed to bridge the key skill gaps. A data-driven understanding of the key skills gaps will also help guide government decisions regarding subsidies and incentives to encourage people into appropriate training.

Second, we need particular focus on students leaving school, making sure they have a pathway to employment, including apprenticeships.

We welcome the government’s recent changes addressing the need to expand incentives to hire apprentices and trainees.

One further step would be to work more closely together to understand employers’ current and emerging skills needs. We need structured collaboration between employers and unions to identify how jobs are changing over time and what specialist skills are needed.

This collaboration could extend to forums or organisations that help with recruiting apprentices, matching them with suitable employers, developing training plans, and providing both employers and apprentices with support and education.

In the context of school leavers, it is essential to do all we can to ensure that kids at school do not fall behind. Online learning during COVID-19 restrictions have not worked for everyone. Some disadvantaged students without adequate access to technology have slipped behind, in some cases compounding previous inequities. Providing accelerator courses, particularly in the important transitional years of primary to secondary and secondary to senior secondary, will help them catch up on the basics they have missed.

Third, we must use data more intelligently in recruitment.

As noted above, creating jobs is one facet of the recovery equation. We also need to reduce the friction in matching people looking for work with appropriate opportunities. Intelligent use of data is again key.

Governments could consolidate their existing job portals and collate information in one location that lets people more easily find out what jobs are being advertised, instead of being directed to several different sites. In doing so governments should collaborate with the private sector, recognising that to be effective these job portals need to be dynamic technology platforms with intuitive user interfaces and intelligent search and matching capability. They must be much more than on-line noticeboards.

This will help jobseekers readily understand what jobs they can get with their current level of skills, and importantly what jobs and opportunities will open up to them when they learn new skills.

Fourth, to help employers easily assess a prospective employee’s qualifications, we should work towards a transparent lifelong skills passport for jobseekers. Qualification recognition should not be a maze of different standards. Employers should be able to quickly work out whether people applying for jobs have the right skills and competencies, regardless of in which state or with which provider they obtained their qualifications. This can also make the task of qualifications verification simpler and more automated.

Fifth, and perhaps most fundamentally, we need to invest in helping jobseekers build appropriate skills through a lifelong skills account. Lifelong learning and ongoing skills development are some of the best defences we have against prolonged unemployment.

The account, funded the same way courses are now through a mix of subsidies and income contingent loans, would empower people to keep their skills up to date. They could purchase VET and university courses, as well as courses to gain microcredentials. The account would cover their training and education needs, allowing them to choose where, what and when they study. This would be especially powerful alongside a common information platform for vocational education and training and universities so people have all the information they need at their fingertips about courses, cost and career prospects.

It is critical that we break down the stigma and funding bias that somehow suggests VET is a second-class option to higher education.

During the recovery, the skills account should be used to help people at the highest risk of permanently losing work to access relevant short courses to help them get back into the workforce.

As we continue to talk about mutual obligation requirements on jobseekers, let’s remember society also has obligations. Surely, our mutual obligation must be to do everything we can to help Australians back into work including giving them access to the skills they need. Otherwise we risk condemning a generation to long-term unemployment or months of having their applications rejected and self-worth destroyed.

As a nation, we are better than that.

Jennifer Westacott AO is the Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia.

Ian Narev is the chief operating officer at SEEK and chair of the BCA’s Skills, Education and Labour Market economic recovery working group.