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Unemployment is down, job ads are up, but disadvantaged Australians are still being left behind

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The numbers for unemployment and job vacancies look good, but a new report highlights that for many disadvantaged workers, the recovery has completely passed them by.

While the current unemployment rate of 4.6% is excellent, we know that if we include those who are employed but not actually working at all, the effective rate is much higher:

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This difference makes it difficult to judge just how strong the economy is right now.

It also remains difficult because the exclusion of migrants means we have a very abnormal economy.

There are, for example, much fewer people in their 20s now in Australia than before the pandemic:

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The number of people aged 20-24 is back to what it was a decade ago, while those in their late 20s is back to 2016 levels.

This has a major impact on the labour force and we are still only really guessing when trying to estimate when or if those young people will return in the form of migrant workers and foreign students.

Related: Delta has hit Australia’s economy harder than any other OECD nation. But it’s not all bad news | Greg Jericho

What is clear is that even without those people there is work to be done. And because many of those young migrants are no longer here to work, job vacancies have been at record levels.

But not everyone is sharing as much in that good fortune.

Anglicare Australia’s latest Jobs Availability Snapshot, released on Thursday, has found what seems to be the good news that the number of entry-level jobseekers for entry-level jobs has sharply fallen:

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That suggests a pretty easy road for those jobseekers who lack post-secondary qualifications.

And yet the Anglicare report also found that while the overall number of people who were unemployed or accessing jobactive programs has fallen about 30% in the past year, the number of people in the most disadvantaged category of jobseekers (Stream C) has barely fallen at all:

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The problem is that those with limited skills are limited in the types of jobs they can apply for. But on the other hand, just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean you can’t pack shelves at Coles.

“Jobseekers with barriers to work are not just competing with one another,” the report notes. “Higher-skilled candidates can and do apply for entry-level roles.”

This situation, the reports also finds, is “especially true as people seek to recover from an unprecedented downturn”.

What it means is that while there may be only 2.8 low-skilled unemployed people vying for every low-skilled job, in reality, because anyone can apply for those jobs, the figure is potentially 27 people competing every low-skilled job.

And one aspect that has made this more likely is that over the past two years, the demand for low-skilled work has increased much faster than for higher skilled work – and especially so for those jobs in the “middle skill level”:

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This is where we really see the impact of the pandemic. It has caused a massive spike in vacancies for shelf packers and other grocery jobs. For the first time in a decade, the demand for checkout operators has risen:

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Similarly, the pandemic has caused a surge in demand for health and care workers. But these are roles with specific skills – to be an aged care worker you will likely need a certificate III qualification:

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Similarly, while there has been a big increase in entry-level work for roles that were commonly held by migrant workers or foreign students – such as cleaners and kitchen hands – there has also been a big need for chefs and cooks; jobs which again require specific skills:

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As such, the Anglicare report suggests that the recovery has been one “driven by the most employable jobseekers taking the most easily available jobs”.

And it means that even though the broad numbers look good, those with low skills have been very much left behind.

One way Anglicare argues to remedy this is through one of the very areas that has seen such a large surge of demand for work – aged care.

The report suggests “employment programs for disadvantaged and entry-level jobseekers in aged care and home support services”, such as those devised by Benetas and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, can expand with more funding to “provide stable work for those who need it”.

There will always be arguments over the strength of the economy, especially when we have such odd constraints as we do now. But the need to help the most disadvantaged is always there – and perhaps even more so when the temptation is to think the big-picture numbers suggest everything is good.

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