The Government’s Jobs Strategy is Flawed, and this is how it affects women

Jobs, jobs JOBS!

We hear a lot about job creation from our government, not only in the lead up to an election but pretty much any time any spending is announced. And it makes sense that the creation of income earning opportunities is essential if we’re to remain a prosperous and first world country with the high standards of living we all enjoy.

But it’s not the full story. In fact, the whole thing is smoke and mirrors, fundamentally flawed in almost every way.

These flaws can be demonstrated without even mentioning the failed job creation programs that see millions of dollars pumped in to private sector subsidies to ‘create’ jobs for a mere 400 indigenous people — where businesses need only offer 15 hours a week employment to win grants, and of course suddenly the ‘ongoing job’ will evaporate as soon as the government funds dry up.

And let’s ignore for a moment the debacle of JobKeeper that saw publicly listed companies’ with record soaring profits benefit from a cash grab of millions of dollars supposedly rescuing jobs that were clearly never at risk of being lost.

Or that every time fossil fuel companies get handed wheelbarrows of subsidies for infrastructure or diesel or whatever, that the attached jobs figures are rarely scrutinised, and certainly never accounted. Nobody ever seems to mention the percentage of indirect jobs included (that count the kid working at the 7–11 in the numbers), nor explores the reality of pit to port automation.

And finally, we’re not even going to discuss the 2021 Budget that despite pouring billions into aged care, neglected to do anything to shore up the staffing shortages and minimum employee ratios which were highlighted as a primary failing in the care of elderly residents in the recent Royal Commission.

No, we’ll just focus on how a government that shouts from the rooftop about women’s participation, jobs for women in under-represented industries, and expensive programs supposedly aimed at incentivising people into trades and industries with skills shortages, is derailing the jobs mantra from the outset.

A complicated set of structural barriers, a fundamental misunderstanding of the lives of ordinary people (especially women), and a deliberate system that punishes people for making good financial decisions (unless you’re the CEO or shareholder of an above-mentioned private profit-making company suckling on the public teat), is just throwing good money after bad and wasting opportunities to drive genuine positive outcomes.

Case in Point

In somewhat of a deviation from the norm, I woke up one day and decided to change my career and learn a building trade. Yep, just like that. I could embellish and say that I looked around at the government’s response to COVID and noticed that the jobs and industries most shielded from the storm by deliberate decisions and interventionist policies were men’s jobs and especially those in construction, and that this context inspired me to seek out the security of the industry, but it wasn’t that. I just decided I wanted to know how to do stuff, and to teach other women how to do stuff, and that some of that stuff would be to assist them improve the homes they already own, or else build alternatives to traditional house with mortgage, so they too can own somewhere to call home.

I quickly discovered the Victorian state government has a ‘Women in Construction’ strategy which seeks to attract and retain women in the building industry by removing structural barriers that intensify an already highly gendered industry. The priorities outlined in the strategy seemed like a big bonus for a female person looking to enter the construction industry. TICK.

I also found a lot of promotion of FREE TAFE and JobTrainer courses offered by the government in building and construction to address worker shortages by enticing job seekers and career changers to retrain in these industries. TICK.

TAFE in general is trying to attract more women, especially older women. TICK.

And finally, apprenticeships are receiving the lion’s share of attention with all manner of organisations scouting for people keen to spend 4 years learning on the job. TIC…...

Oh wait…!

Scrap that last one, unless you’re 18 and living at home with access to the bank of mum and dad, and can afford to spend 4 years on poverty wages retraining in a new industry that’s hostile to women. So hostile in fact that women find it extremely difficult to even secure an apprenticeship at all. Apparently most of it comes down to who you know. ‘Applying’ for an apprenticeship gets you nowhere.

Oh, and….

Turns out FREE TAFE and JobTrainer courses have eligibility criteria, including for career changers which sees anyone with a higher level qualification or over 20 (or 24) years old excluded, so they’re not so free after all. With no disrespect to unskilled workers or people with low level qualifications, but how many ‘career changers’ get midway through a career without having attained qualifications higher than a Certificate III? Maybe they don’t really mean ‘career’ and it’s just a word used to sound like this program is more inclusive and therefore more effective than it really is.

As for being a woman entering TAFE, turns out that unless you’re broke and desperate, the income assistance (Austudy) paid to students over 25 to support them through their full time studies isn’t available to you until you are. My claim was rejected because I had the temerity to keep my mortgage repayments in an offset account instead of paying them upfront to reduce the principal loan. To Centrelink it looks like a pot of savings to draw down to zero rather than security to ensure I have a place to live. Nevermind that I won’t have any income whatsoever to meet my living expenses or mortgage repayments for a year while I study full time as encouraged.

No Austudy for you, financially responsible mortgagee lady.

OK, so let’s ponder this for a moment. A woman, maybe with kids, maybe single, maybe a mortgage (or at least rent payments), over 40 in the middle of her career is meant to give up her steady job and the income it provides, turn her back on security, and take on a year or more of full time studies at full cost, that may or may not result in employment at the end, without any income whatsoever?

Sounds like a dream! Just kidding. It’s the nightmare that is this government’s laughable idea of ‘job creation’, addressing skill shortages for industry, and supporting women in the workforce.

The fact is that navigating the TAFE system, its applications process, the funding options and subsidies, and working your way through the forms, the tests, the systems to get to actual acceptance and commencement, is a minefield ready to trip up anyone, let alone a busy mother still working her full time job. A prospective student has to apply before you know if you’ll get a subsidised place (and if not it’s $15,000+), and you have to be accepted before you know if Austudy will be granted, and even then you might need to wait 13 weeks if you have any money of any kind available to you. Or they might just reject you outright, and by then you’ve quit your job to start your course ready for your big ‘career change’.

Who in their right mind would put everything on the line to move into an industry they know nothing about (except that MP’s spend a lot of time hanging out in hard hats at photo opps)?

Me, it turns out. I am a unicorn.

I nearly didn’t make it as far as I did except that I got help from higher up the food chain because I understand the machinations of politics and government, and sought help from my local Member of Parliament who put my on to the Minister’s office who greased the wheels. Now if only Centrelink would be as forthcoming….

Maybe don’t hold my breath? Robodebt, anyone…

The Women in Construction strategy is similarly destined to failure. Apart from the enormous cultural change needed at the grassroots that doesn’t make women feel out of place from day one lest they act like ‘one of the boys’, there’s not enough being done to mitigate the very real barriers. The reality in 2021 remains that the majority of housework, child-rearing and caring responsibilities fall to women, and any job that doesn’t offer flexible work arrangements, part time roles, generous parental and carer’s leave or the option to not start work before school drop-offs is unlikely to either attract or retain women with families. If the only pathway into the industry is as an apprentice for 4 years on low wages, or a full fee paying TAFE course without income support that is unlikely to land them a job, how many women — especially older women with financial or familial responsibilities — are going to decide building and construction is the career for them?

It’s enough to make you feel like the government isn’t serious about workplace equity and well paid jobs for women.

If that wasn’t enough to convince you, how about the fact that in this year’s Budget the government cut funding to universities (which both educates and employs more women than men) by 10%, and TAFE — that bastion of trades and vocational jobs training — suffered a 24% funding cut! Good bye STEM/STEAM workers and researchers of the future. See ya later tradies and skilled graduates.

Where are all these jobs jobs jobs meant to come from that the government touts? Perhaps Australia’s 2 million unemployed are all meant to get a job in offshore detention centres that have had their funding increased? Or maybe they’d all like to work as a domestic helper for a wealthy family that have more money in their pockets due to the high income earner tax cuts? ASIO got a windfall too — maybe check their positions vacant noticeboard?

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