Australia’s main Active Labor Market Program, the Duttonesque sounding “Workforce Australia”, is the latest iteration of a long line of models for Employment Services inflicted on the unemployed since the demise of the CES 25 years ago. It’s yet another Morrison government turd that the Albanese government should have flushed away the minute the ink was dry at Yarralumla.
ESTRAGON: Fancy that. (He raises what remains of the carrot by the stub of leaf, twirls it before his eyes.) Funny, the more you eat the worse it gets.
VLADIMIR: With me it’s just the opposite. (Waiting for Godot)
Active Labor Market Programs (ALMPs) are the policies and interventions implemented by governments around the world to address unemployment, enhance workforce skills, and promote labour market participation. ALMP’s are often described as a combination of “carrots and sticks”.
In this context, “carrots” are positive incentives or rewards provided to encourage individuals to participate in ALMPs. “Sticks”, on the other hand, are measures that introduce some form of compulsion for not participating in ALMPs to create a sense of obligation to find employment. However, as with Estragon and Vladimir, not everyone sees the same things in the same way.
The few large scale studies (and here) on the effectiveness of carrot vs stick regimes are statistically powerful and much loved by the Department of Employment, but they suffer from flawed assumptions about what is a carrot or a stick. For example, training programs are seen as carrots, but for an unemployed worker with a Masters of Internet Communication, I doubt that a basic computer course run by his employment provider was much of a carrot; probably a stick given he was told his payments would be cut if he didn’t do it.
Australia’s main ALMP, the Duttonesque sounding “Workforce Australia”, is the latest iteration of a long line of models for Employment Services inflicted on the unemployed since the demise of the CES 25 years ago. To almost no one’s surprise, like its predecessors it is turning out to be just sticks with maybe an occasional woody carrot thrown in. It’s yet another Morrison government turd that the Albanese government should have flushed away the minute the ink was dry at Yarralumla. Instead, we got an enquiry. Given that this is at least the fifth major enquiry into Employment services in the last couple of decades, with every other one delivering more of the same, forgive some scepticism.
When Australia has both workforce shortages and an unemployment rate greater than the frictional rate, that’s a sign that we have ALMPs not adequate for the needs of the unemployed nor the demands of the labour market. A survey of 51 economists identified improving employment services as the second most important measure to achieve full employment, although it wasn’t clear what “improving employment services” meant. Nonetheless, I am confident it would not mean teaching people with Masters’ degrees how to turn on a computer. On the other hand, it almost certainly would mean some quality control by a Department of Employment that would do well to acquire a clue about what it takes to get someone a job, and not just a precarious one. Imagine if being skilled in the art and science of helping someone choose, get, and keep a job were a basic expectation for anyone working in the industry. You’d need to go back 25 years for that.
Meanwhile the current Parliamentary Enquiry into Workforce Australia is wrapping up its deliberations after 10 months. Finally, this week, the Enquiry’s public hearings heard the voices of 8 unemployed workers compared with, and often more than once, 67 NGO/Think Tank/Union staff, 49 public servants, 37 providers, and 12 academics (disclosure: including me). The at best, fleeting appearance of any employer representatives is also telling. By hearing a small number of voices of the people most affected, and mostly only at the end when it is likely that a substantial draft of the final report already exists, it will not surprise anyone if the Committee makes recommendations that are of no benefit to the unemployed or employers. Plus ça change!
Chaired by Julian Hill, his statements indicate that “a bit of a push along” is likely to remain a feature of the system. In plain English that means a stick. Missing the voices of the unemployed at the beginning, means that calling a stick a “bit of a push along” hasn’t been challenged for the tosh that it is. The seemingly consensus view from the Committee that leaving people alone causes them to disengage ignores the Government’s own research that Mutual Obligations are more likely to cause disengagement, rather than prevent it.
Of course, the experiences of unemployed workers vary widely based on the design and implementation of a program, the skills of the individual caseworkers they encounter, and their own personal circumstances. However, when something that is supposed to be a carrot is delivered incompetently, patronisingly, or both, then it isn’t a carrot, it’s a stick. I challenge anyone to become motivated to get a job by watching Sarina Russo’s motivational pieces to camera, especially knowing that her company, along with a few of others make millions from the unemployed. When “carrots” do not lead to job opportunities, don’t align with an individual’s capabilities or interests, or interfere with other commitments like an actual job or care-giving requirements, then Estragon is correct, the more you eat, the worse it gets.
Let’s hope that the current Enquiry will come up with an Actual Labour Market Program.