SUSAN RYAN. Skills retraining still more miss than hit.

Nov 6, 2017

Like car manufacturers who, despite decades of notice, still left many workers stranded, NAB’s more sudden announcement underlines the fact that massive redundancies are not only a feature of “old” industries.

The latest news of NAB’s decision to sack 6000 employees follows closely upon the final closure of Holden. The NAB decision seemed to come as a shock, in contrast with the Holden event which was long anticipated but still left hundreds of highly skilled auto workers on the scrap heap.

The inclusion in the NAB announcement of the decision that 2000 individuals with high level IT skills are to be hired will provide no comfort to the abandoned 6000.

The employer must have known for some time it was going to find 6000 workers of no further use to the business. There does not appear to have been any planning for reskilling, up skilling, or redirection for these 6000 employees. Like car manufacturers who, despite decades of notice, still left many workers stranded, NAB’s more sudden announcement underlines the fact that massive redundancies are not only a feature of “old” industries.

Finance including banking is a core sector of the 21st century economy, growing locally and globally, continually demanding new and better skills. Knowing all this, major employers don’t hesitate to off-load thousands of workers, some of whom may have been willing and able to retrain for the latest in-demand jobs.

Employers like NAB seem to allow themselves to flow along with market forces, unrestrained by skills-training responsibilities. They summarily off-load the workers they judge as less productive and replace them with fewer, but differently skilled, workers. CEO Thorburn explains his latest decision by pointing out that the world is changing. This is not news, to any employer, employee or to government.

Many of the discarded workers who are close to age 50 or older will find huge difficulty in getting a new job. If they don’t get rehired, they face living on welfare, and may end up in poverty, vulnerable to homelessness.

Massively disruptive swings in employer demand for some skills over others need not be understood, as Thorburn implies, as an inevitability of the global business environment.

Employers could plan and retrain. Governments can act. So far, the Commonwealth has failed to respond to the ever-changing demands for skills with an effective, systematic, nationally coordinated approach.

In 2016 I conducted, on behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission and in response to a reference from the Commonwealth Attorney General, a national inquiry into employment discrimination against older workers and those with disability.

The inquiry was extensive, commissioned new research and engaged in consultation all over Australia with employers, government and government agencies, service providers, unions and affected individuals in their thousands. It documented the huge losses to our national economy that result each year from workplace discrimination. Discrimination excludes older people and those with disability from working productively, earning, paying taxes and living independent of welfare payments. To achieve both major annual savings to government and huge benefits to individuals, what is required comes down to modest workplace adaptations, flexibility of working hours and retraining.

Recommendations from my national inquiry report “Willing to Work” set out a clear and budget-friendly path for governments and employers to make better use of large pools of talented and willing workers, including those over 50 and those with disability. Key to this approach is recognising that virtually all workers in all sectors will need retraining in new skills or upgrading of their existing ones, typically as they approach 50, or the mid years of their working lives. Customised retraining, ideally provided by TAFE colleges, should be available to every worker at this stage. Older workers could be assessed, informed and directed to areas where jobs are growing and demand is unmet.

The Commonwealth pays millions of dollars each year to private service providers, via the JobActive program which tasks providers with placing the longer term unemployed into jobs. The record of this program is poor. Less than one-third of candidates get jobs, and many of these find themselves jobless again within a few months. Success stories are rare, but Commonwealth dollars continue to roll out to the providers, often for-profit businesses, regardless of failures. Not only is public money wasted on a grand scale, but further damage is inflicted on the self-confidence and commitment of the discarded workers.

Such failure should not be tolerated as inevitable. Economic data informs us weekly of jobs growth and unmet need in large sectors, particularly in aged care and disability care where unmet need, already high, is rapidly growing. The shortfall of trained workers in these sectors threatens the long-term success of the massively funded programs in aged care and the NDIS.  In other parts of the economy where high levels of technology skills are in demand by employers such as NAB, need could be met partially at least if suitable individuals were offered appropriate training, preferably in partnership with the employers seeking the skills.

The news that Artificial Intelligence developments will mean the disappearance of many traditional jobs has been with us for some time. Where is the public policy response? The market unimpeded by regulation and guidance does not provide solutions but continues to add to the problem of unemployed and underemployed workers.

The Commonwealth should take another look at the performance of taxpayers’ dollars spent on improving employability.  With the states, employers, and training bodies, the Commonwealth should coordinate a national retraining and job placement plan. This plan would recognise and anticipate the changes in our economy, assist individuals to assess and improve their own employability, and ensure the nation’s existing skills and experience can be refashioned to be used where they are needed. Without such purposeful action we will be facing more Holden and NAB type events.

Susan Ryan AO was a member of the Hawke cabinet. In 2016 she ended terms as Age Discrimination Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

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