By Nicholas Wyman, 27 September 2016
Nicholas Wyman is a speaker and an expert on applying real-world solutions to the challenges companies face in finding skilled employees. He is CEO of Skilling Australia Foundation, an organisation that works with a large network of educational institutions, employers and support groups to help young Australians make the transition into the workforce.
In characterising Australian school funding debates as being full of shrill arguments and vested interests where, at the end of the day, money doesn’t impact performance as much as it should, Tim Dodd nails it (Unraveling Gonski: The school funding fight is on again AFR 18.9).
School funding has grown 14 per cent more in real terms per student over the past decade, yet our results have gone backwards. If you got those results with any other investment, wouldn’t you want to review your strategy?
As negotiations for the first post-Gonski school funding agreement begin, media attention will likely focus on the headline funding figures, yet if we know that increased investment is not increasing outcomes, we should instead focus on the questions about the efficacy and future of our current schooling model, and how we can improve engagement and outcomes for the all too many young Australians the status quo is failing.
Instead of entering into a zero-sum game about sectoral funding, it would be enlightening for our Education Ministers and Bureaucrats to prioritise asking the hard questions about how we can engage those who are dropping out at record numbers.
Despite the consequences of widespread youth disengagement being corrosive and profound, rarely does the impact of these issues receive adequate public discussion.
The unemployment rate among Australia’s youth is currently 13.19%, more than double the adult rate. It understates the true situation since it counts those engaged in casual, temporary and part-time work as employed. It also excludes those engaged in higher education programs, a high proportion of which we know will either not complete their course or pursue employment in their discipline of study.
Too many young Australians are failing to make a successful transition from high school to work, instead joining the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed, relegated to remain content with casual or part-time employment. It is evident that without the structure, purpose and identity which are provided through ongoing, rewarding employment, young people can easily fall into the ‘at-risk’ category, requiring more expensive social interventions later to get their lives back on track.
Youth unemployment is a problem which can’t solely be the burden of employers who need workers; nor is the job readiness problem confined to vocational education. Business groups have long urged education facilities to incorporate more practical work placements into their bachelor programs and improve university-to-business collaboration.
This is not a question of aptitude or ability to develop skills: it’s about learning the formal and informal rules and expectations of the workplace. We know well that a person’s early formative employment experiences have a major influence over work ethic, attitudes and self-belief as an employee long after that first role. When a young person feels unprepared or unsupported for a role, the risk of both employer disillusionment and employee disengagement rises significantly.
How young people will fare in the new global economy is a big question. But how young people from disadvantaged communities fare is an even bigger one, for the transition problem is particularly pronounced among those from lower socio-economic groups or living beyond urban centres. Lacking connections, skills, work experience, effective adult role models and limited local opportunities, too many young Australians have a hard time breaking into work. And the longer they are on the sidelines, the greater the likelihood that they will remain there at a great individual and social cost.
We need to explore new options. Failing to read the present trends and offering school-only responses to growing our young people and not developing new options is unacceptable.
Recent moves in the US have sought to put aside policy differences. The Leveraging and Energizing America’s Apprenticeship Programs Act (the “LEAP” Act) seeks to offer generous tax credits for employers who support apprentices. It comes off the back of the Obama administration’s announcement of US$100 million in competitive grants to expand apprenticeships. Across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom has successfully moved apprenticeships into the mainstream and leveraged billions of dollars in private investments in training – dwarfing the US example.
Closer to home the Federal Government’s innovative $752 million Youth Jobs PaTH (Prepare-Trial-Hire) Programme will help young job seekers to move off welfare and into employment. In addition, a small but successful program I have been involved with that’s delivering compelling results is the Citi New Recruits program, which is managed by the Skilling Australia Foundation. Citi New Recruits focuses on teaching participants the “soft skills” they need to develop to get a job, keep it, and develop a career path: skills like showing up on time, cultivating the attitude and disposition employers seek, giving every assignment your best effort, being a team player, how to ask for assistance or task clarification, and more.
Beginning on day one, the program gives recruits a solid appreciation of key personal values —opportunity, pride, independence, accountability — and how to exhibit these values in pursuit of their vocational aspirations. Over the course of the program, each recruit develops an action plan and considers the career and work environment that is most personally suitable. In the final week, all undertake work experience with a company in their chosen field.
Skills building through programs like PaTH and Citi New Recruits are powerful ways to address one of Australia’s nagging social problems – they represent an excellent way of doing well – by doing good.
Examples like these demonstrate that we can improve outcomes for students through providing young people with tangible opportunities for growth and clear pathways to join the skilled workforce We don’t need bloated educational funding envelopes, we need concerted engagement and collaboration between educators and industry.
These types of collaborations and lateral approaches can, through breaking a pernicious cycle which turns youth disengagement to youth unemployment and welfare dependency, provide truly formative and life-changing experiences for young people.
However, if we are to break the back of youth unemployment, bipartisan discussion and resolute action are the only means through which it will happen. And we can start by asking our educators to justify their current outcomes before opening the wallet for future funding requests.