Lifestyle & Culture

The Hunter job dream

Where anyone goes from anywhere is never easy, writes Samuel Rayfield.


‘Remove the stigma related to creative industries’    ‘Age shouldn’t be a barrier to work experience’.

Above are two of the many work-related imperatives raised by the 15-25 year-old core demographic at the Hunter Research Foundation’s YOUnite Youth Summit. Below are three of the many education-related ones:

‘Maths that is more practical, relevant’, ‘less stress & tears’, and ‘progress rather than end result’.

The research even went far enough to suggest solutions to these problems:

‘Confidence to pursue our passion through training and work comes from our evolving life skills’, ‘a place to go in the HUNTER for young people’, and, specifically, ‘online’.

All these concerns were aired, discussed and documented around eight round tables, at which the aforementioned 15-25-year-olds sat. Surrounding the seated were members of educational institutions like TAFE, universities and schools, members of the HRF and parents – wandering about, making conversation and listening in on others. This all occurred on Wednesday 25th February, in the wonderful “Italian Classic … white stuccoed clock-towered Town Hall” in Maitland*.

Earlier that day, the results of quantitative research that HRF carried out prior to the event on ‘the issues faced by young people in the Hunter during the transition from school to adult life’ were released. The round tables were focus groups, or the qualitative research, the results of which are yet to be officially released.

Certain statistics were more striking than others, but none were more striking than this: 18% of the Hunter population considered young (15-25) is jobless. It’s simply a NSW Labour Market statistic, but it’s what piqued the interest of HRF and Acting Director of Research, Shanthi Ramanathan, YOUnite’s Project Leader.

“In terms of OECD figures regarding educational attainment at 15 years old…[Australia] does really well. When looking at school completions and the proportion of young people who go on to do further education, however, we lag right behind. Our ranking drops quite significantly,” said Ramanathan.

Rising youth mental health concerns – “high suicide rates, high rates of depression and anxiety” – provided additional impetus for further research. The unofficial hypothesis of the project is if the “highly stressful cocoon” of the school and Higher School Certificate system is eased, those graduating are given a “better chance at dealing with all the other issues they have to focus on.”

But there are always barriers or legislative hoops to jump through. It’s relatively fallacious to suggest all students are of academic rigour, more so to suggest that all are academically inclined. Thus, for those who don’t believe schooling is for them, it’s difficult when current government policy requires students to complete Year 12 unless they manage 30 hours of paid work per week. According to Ramanathan, it’s leading to an increase in truancy, detentions and suspensions.

“The students who are forced to stay are causing issues … if they don’t want to be there, they’re going to take every opportunity they can not to be there and when they’re not there – or even where they are there – they’re bucking the system, which unfortunately affects those who genuinely want to be there.”

It became this way in 2010, and research like this is showing why it’s not working. 30 hours of paid work is a commitment that one would struggle to maintain while still attending school, though indeed some do. It’s also a question of what a young and prospective employee, dissatisfied with the school system, actually wants to do. It’s something that is difficult to have a clue about at an age when one’s experience of the outside world is primarily limited to what they’ve experienced at – you guessed it – school.

“To get their foot in the door somewhere and say, ‘I’m gonna give this a try,’ and maybe get two days of work is a starting point. But it’s something they can’t do if they’re still at school,” said Ramanathan.

A Teacher’s Perspective

Paul Rayfield is the Maths Coordinator at St. Peter’s Maitland. He’s been a teacher for 30 years, at St. Peter’s for 20, and in his current position for the last 10. This is an excerpt from his memoir in the school’s 2014 yearbook:

‘Students in our geographical area have for many years had the mindset of “I’ll get a job in the mines”, and who can blame them? The problem is, that is not a sustainable mindset. We have to set our children up for a future that is unknown. Is it possible to break the cycle of [civilisational] ascendency and downturn?

Making our children realise that life is both a joy and a struggle will help them for whatever lies ahead.

Teaching your son or daughter persistence, resilience and an appreciation of education is the best way to prepare them for life.’

The good teachers are the thinking ones, or philosophers, with a vast dispensary of dynamic insights on society’s many issues. But the term ‘teacher’ is not absolute and needn’t be restricted to vocation (generally). The ‘good’ people are the educated ones, or those with an education well-rounded by the exposure to the knowledge of subjects that school provides.

“Education is a good thing,” says Rayfield, “because it does challenge your concepts. By being in a classroom, you get exposed to subjects and views that you might not be exposed to as part of your inner circle of family and friends. Anything that can expose you to a wider range of views is a good thing, and that’s where education can be useful: leading to a more tolerant society.”

Fair enough.

“For the way our modern industrial culture operates, it’s pretty much essential that we have a system in place where students receive education. Education for all is held as a positive thing.”

Up until a point, of course. Education and school life verges on a Western rite of passage or essential socialisation process and up until a point, it’s not an unreasonable proposition that participation in this aspect of the “modern industrial culture” is essential. Heck, if it wasn’t, the terms “disenfranchised” and “disengaged” would likely require drastic reworking.

But the keeping-kids-at-school-until-30-hours-of-work-thing:

“The government at the time wanted to lower unemployment – it was a juggling of the figures. You’re not unemployed if you’re at school,” said Rayfield.

Thus, a key aspect – generally undiscussed at the YOUnite summit – of youth unemployment in the Hunter is: jobs, and can they exist?

An Economist’s Perspective

Dr Victor Quirk is a Careers Counsellor at the UON Careers Service. In 2011 he completed his PhD, a political economist’s insight into the labour market. The Preservation of Labour Under-Utilisation as an Instrument of Social Domination is its title. It begins with Article 23 of the University Declaration of Human Rights:

‘Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.’

What is unemployment?

“Unemployment’s awful,” says Quirk, “really awful. It’s well below the poverty line, the income you get for it, and all the conditions are dreadful.”

“To be counted as unemployed, you have to firstly be of working age – so over 16–you have to tell [the ABS] that you do want to work, you have to have applied for a job in the last four weeks, and you have to be able start work this week.”

By the way it’s measured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, unemployment is hovering at about six-and-a-half per cent, and national media discourse says it’s rising. The way in which it is measured, in Quirk’s words, is this:

“The labour force survey the Bureau of Statistics does every month, they go around to about a third of one per cent of the population, knock on their doors and ask, ‘Did you do’ – of the people that live there – ‘Did you do one hour of work in the last week?’”

“If the person says yes, they are counted as employed.”

Employment measured that way means that, if it’s rising, at the absolute least, fewer people nationwide are achieving the bare minimum of one hour of work per week. There’s also the measure of the labour underutilisation rate, which counts the number of people who say they want more hours of work. Current measures of labour underutilisation say it’s at about 15 per cent. But a far more accurate way of measuring labour underutilisation is this:

“You knock at the door and ask the person, ‘How many hours of work did you do this week, and how many hours of work did you want to do?’ If the person said, ‘Well, I did one hour, but I wanted to do 35 hours,’ then [the ABS] can say, ‘You are negative 34 hours’. If you say you worked 50 hours and you would’ve preferred 35, they say you did 15 more than you wanted.”

“By adding up all the hours that people wanted to do and all the hours that they did do, you could work out how many hours of employment the economy was short.” But this is not how it is done.

Ultimately, Dr Quirk’s thesis posits exactly what is contained in its title. In a guest post on Bill Mitchell’s, the Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), blog, Quirk said the following:

‘Unemployment is deliberately preserved as a means of disempowering working people, and that in order to have the desired effect, the unemployed have to be kept in as miserable condition as possible. In order for governments to avoid electoral backlash for doing this, they need to fabricate myths about the macroeconomy, particularly about the causation of unemployment, to camouflage their agenda.’

It’s not an accident, he suggests, but serves a specific function in the economic system. If there were jobs enough for a disgruntled employee to say to their employer, “If you don’t want to employ me, there are plenty of others who will,” without jeopardising their employment, then the power of negotiation is placed in the hands of the employee, not the employer.

But it’s not, of course, how it works – the power’s in the hands of the employer, who can generally say without rebuttal, “If you don’t like the job, there are plenty of others who will do it.”

“From an employer’s point of view, to have the threat of unemployment sitting there in the background is a critical way of how they manage their staff and how they manage the population overall,” said Quirk.

“Now, you could say, maybe that’s necessary because if you want to have a really efficient economy that produces lots of stuff, you’ve got to make sure your workers, when they turn up to work, all work hard, so maybe that’s a good thing.”

“The problem with that is you could line the population up on a scale – the employability scale … At one end, you’ve got highly paid professionals, CEOs and whatever, and down the other end, at somewhere along that line, you hit the people that aren’t employed, and the queue keeps going back. There are people that no employer is ever likely to employ.”

Whichever ill-fit to the mould it is – chronic disability, zero academic inclination, the list is inexhaustible – “those people are permanently punished. They’re in this punishment system that’s really to motivate a bunch of employable people,” said Quirk.

For all the doom and gloom, however, Dr Quirk and his colleagues at CofFEE propose a solution: the Job Guarantee. The concept throughout history has appeared in various forms: in 14th, 19th and 20th century England, mid-19th century Paris, right now in India and a few Latin American countries (albeit on a small scale). Even from 1942 to 1974 in Australia, Quirk says, “it was the policy of successive governments to keep the unemployment rate below two per cent, and that’s what they did – they didn’t go over two per cent for 32 years.”

That’s an iteration of ‘full employment’. It ‘means the absence of involuntary employment and thus a situation where all those wishing to work at the ruling set of real wage rates can find employment’, as defined by University of Sydney Associate Professor of Economics, Graham White on The Conversation.

But how does it happen? The view of its advocates is that, with the power of negotiation of employment in the hands of the employer – in this case primarily the private sector – the public sector always maintains the ability to alleviate or allow as much unemployment as it deems necessary. During the 1930s depression, conservative Australian national governments believed, according to Quirk, that if they were “to employ people and spend money during the depression, they’d have this runaway inflation, and said it was madness to suggest that the government could ever employ enough people to turn the depression around.”

“But then, when the Second World War was threatening, the conservative government started spending money on defence preparations and, hey-ho, the unemployment started to fall. The conservative government collapsed, Labor came in under John Curtin, and about two months later the Japanese hit Pearl Harbour and there was a massive mobilisation to defend the country. 40,000 men were suddenly employed by the Commonwealth government,” said Quirk.

“Then what happened was the public turned around and said, ‘hang on a minute, all through the depression you people said it was impossible for the government to find enough money to employ people, but as soon as there’s another war you want us to fight, instantaneously you find the money!’”

So unemployment as result of public spending on employment was kept under two per cent for 32 years. For numerous reasons since 1972, right to work policies have faded, grown dusty or have simply been shelved, remaining largely absent from public discourse. But the solution offered by the Job Guarantee is a feasible one.

As it stands, the average unemployed person is left without a necessary avenue to maintain or develop their skills, connections, or adaptability to structural change within their industry. The longer they’re unemployed, the more their employability deteriorates.

“The unemployed are used as a spare buffer supply of workers,” said Quirk. “When the labour market expands, it sucks workers out of the unemployment pool; when it contracts, it throws them back in.”

“Really, what we should be doing is getting that pool of people and keeping their skills in good shape and one of the ways of doing that is giving them an income and work to do, maintaining their social contact and structure to their day – keeping their activity stimulating.”

“Instead of having a pool of unemployed people, you have a pool of jobs sitting on the shelf, ready to go. So, if someone loses their job and becomes unemployed, instead of going down to Centrelink and getting the dole, they go down to this employment service and get a choice of jobs of benefit to either the community or environment, getting paid the minimum wage.”

“Whilst they’re working in that job, private sector employers who are looking for staff have got access to them.”

Instead of nothing but money in the form of unemployment benefits, the Job Guarantee is that and more. An ear for the concerns voiced by those at the YOUnite summit and a means for maintaining one’s knowledge outside institutional bounds – whether in education or employment – are necessary for diminishing that striking 18 per cent.

Wisdom from Mr Rayfield:

“There’s got to be some system in which everyone can live comfortably. Personally, I don’t believe our Western civilisation is a sustainable one. It’s only a certain number of hundreds of years old, and how sustainable is it really for everyone to have the standard of living that we have here?”

How indeed.


* Charlton, K.D. (1961). The Architecture of High Street Maitland. PhD thesis, University of Newcastle.


Image: Flazingo Photos flickr, no changes made.

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