We are in the midst of a workforce and skills crisis. It doesn’t matter if the sector is agriculture, hospitality, construction, transport, health, retail or education there are employers screaming out for workers. Many employers are happy to consider staff that are not necessarily skilled in the required field of endeavour and will invest the time and effort to train staff, if only they could find them.
The Australian unemployment rate for April 2022 was released last month, and it was the lowest figure on record since August 1974, coming it a just 3.9%. However, there is a curious statistical anomaly with the way the unemployment rate is calculated. If you are not actively looking for work because you are tired of being rejected for jobs you’ve applied for then you not counted in the unemployment statistics. Alternatively, if you are working only a handful of hours, but would like many more hours, you are also not counted.
Indeed, Australian Bureau of Statistics data on the share of the population not engaged in study, training or employment shows a hidden cohort of potential workers that could be utilised more effectively, if we were a little more open minded and prepared to support them more actively in the workplace.
People with a disability are particularly disadvantaged when it comes to accessing education, training and work once they leave secondary school at age eighteen. By the age of 25 more than 60% of people with a disability are not engaged in further study, training nor employment of any kind. Their level of disengagement continues to climb towards the 80% level as they progress toward their 50s.
Our indigenous community and the share of the population with poor English language skills see their level of disengagement in study, training or employment rise quickly to 40% post-secondary school and remains at this level well into middle age. In contrast, the share of the population that are non-indigenous, don’t have a disability and have good English language skills have relatively low levels of disengagement in study, training or employment through to their mid 50s.
I’ve spent six years of my career as a teacher in a special needs school, helping to prepare kids with a disability for life beyond high school which is aimed to include further study, training and employment. I know with the right attitude and support mechanisms many of these kids can contribute to the workforce. I suspect the same is true for indigenous communities and those with poor English language skills, we just need the programs and funding to assist their transition into study, training and, eventually, employment.
A fabulous example of an innovative program assisting people on the autism spectrum into the workforce from the agriculture sector is the SunPork Autism and Agriculture Initiative that was implemented with assistance from Autism CRC, Specialisterne Australia and Curtin University. The SunPork program resulted in an on-boarding and support framework that allowed the oganisation to place 16 autistic adults into fully integrated, full or part-time employment, on their farms in Queensland and South Australia.
SunPork don’t view their autism program as a charity, with all autistic employees being paid by SunPork in accordance with relevant awards and enterprise agreements in place for the agreed positions. They made adjustments to their recruitment system to accommodate autistic employees, who they identified as having inherent skills specifically suited to working in animal care roles. The program is considered to be an avenue to long term employment and, according to the SunPork website, more than 8% of their current workforce are on the autism spectrum.
The current tight labour situation facing many sectors provides a perfect opportunity to consider how we can be more inclusive employers and focus upon cohorts like the indigenous, disabled and those with poor English language skills so we can introduce programs that will support them to study beyond high school, upskill and secure long-term, meaningful and useful employment.