OPINION: Employment numbers don't add up to success

RESPONSE: Zoë Wundenberg says the government's response to the Senate committee report into Jobactive was underwhelming and unsurprising.
RESPONSE: Zoë Wundenberg says the government's response to the Senate committee report into Jobactive was underwhelming and unsurprising.

I have said this many times before and yet here I am, repeating myself: numbers are a fickle thing. Without context, without qualitative understanding, without engagement and consideration, they honestly mean very little.

Early last year, the Education and Employment References Committee released a report as a result of the Senate Inquiry into the efficacy of the Jobactive program. Among the 41 recommendations made by the committee to the Australian government was the acknowledgement of the need to address the quality of service being received, the funding models that incentivises short-term/temporary job placements, the provision of an employment services ombudsman, limiting punitive influence of employment providers, and the need for training and professional development for employment services staff.

These recommendations were borne from a review of submissions from Jobactive participants and providers, employment services consultants, and other organisations and charities, with the committee engaging directly with those making submissions to the inquiry at the five hearings held.

From this, the committee identified four key themes. Firstly, that the services and support arrangements that should be involved in the employment services system are just not there, with barriers to employment going unaddressed in job-readiness assessments, and a lack of even the most basic job-readiness services that such a provider is meant to deliver on. Caseloads of 150 participants don't allow for the time required to deliver these services effectively.

Secondly, that the mutual obligations and job search requirements established by the government are often poorly designed and inappropriate. I was stunned to discover that there was no workers' compensation if a Work for the Dole participant is injured during the program, and there just aren't enough jobs out there to warrant monthly "KPIs" of 20 applications a month in many areas, so employers are burdened with significant numbers of inappropriate and poor quality applications.

Thirdly, the Jobactive's compliance framework is punitive and its administration by Jobactive providers instead of public servants is concerning - especially given that the 2015-2016 administrative error rate for penalties was around 50 per cent. The report stated that almost 20 per cent of participants in the penalty zone are homeless, and 28 per cent in this zone are Indigenous despite Indigenous persons only representing 13 per cent of Jobactive participants.

Finally, the funding model is driven to incentivise Jobactive providers to "churn people through short-term work, rather than helping them to secure sustainable longer-term employment." This is certainly evidenced by the number of degree and TAFE qualified participants who are told to get a forklift licence or are informed they need to take delivery driving casual work. In fact, 53.9 per cent of employed Jobactive participants were casually employed according to the most recent data and 47 per cent were underemployed.

The government's response to the Senate committee report was as underwhelming as it was unsurprising. They used numbers to back up their unwillingness to accept the premise of the report, stating that the Jobactive system had achieved 1.6m jobs between 2015 and 2020. However, this was anticipated by the Senate committee, who drew attention to questions about whether these jobs were short-term placements that maintained "the revolving door of the welfare system."

While the government insisted the figures were positive, reading the most recent Employment Services Outcome Report shows us almost 60 per cent of those job placements did not last longer than six months. For those in Work for the Dole, three months after exiting the program, almost 80 per cent were still not employed. Furthermore, almost 70 per cent were not employed three months after exiting a training activity and almost 80 per cent were not employed three months after exiting voluntary work. How exactly do these numbers paint a picture of success? Nowhere in the response does it mention a plan to address upskilling for employment consultants or the need for educational responsibility to deliver these "Enhanced" services. So providers have no obligation to demand higher quality outcomes from qualified staff. Does the government really see them as career support providers or punitive watchdogs?

The government's response to this crisis is to pull back even further to a largely digital approach. If providers aren't teaching clients about Applicant Tracking Software, or providing them with quality resumes and cover letters now, how is this going to change moving into a digital model of delivery? People will become more disconnected, more disengaged, and reduced even further to not just a number, but a piece of binary code in a database.

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