Morrison's JobMaker plan and the 'skill' shortage

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Prime Minister Morrison (Screenshot via YouTube) diverts attention away from Australia's job shortage while talking about a skills shortage (Image by Daniel Lobo / Flickr)

The Morrison Government’s focus on "skills" deflects attention from the real job market problems of privatisation and lack of funding, and shifts the blame to those looking for work. Sam Brennan reports.

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke at the National Press Club in late May, he focused on two areas. The first was industrial relations and the second, less covered issue, was what Morrison called “skills.”

Morrison said, “We need Australians better trained for the jobs businesses are looking to create because that’s important."  This targeted the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector as the reason for this not occurring and the pathway to correct it.

While defining and tracking skill shortages is difficult, the Government’s own data shows that before COVID-19 hit there were fewer skill shortages than at any time in the last 15 years. 

Source: Department of Jobs and Small Business figures on skill shortages

It is jobs, not skills, that is the issue, with three unemployed people for every job vacancy at the start of the year. The situation has only worsened.

ABS Labour Market Information Portal figures on vacancy and unemplo

Unlike jobs, there is no data to indicate that COVID-19 has led to a sudden reduction in skills.

There are some skilled jobs in more demand during COVID-19, such as nursing. However, the sectors that are seeing job growth during COVID-19 are far outweighed by the areas in which it is preventing them.

Industrial Relations Research Centre University of NSW Honorary Professor Raja Junankar told IA: 

“There is a job shortage at the moment, not a skill shortage.”

So why talk about skills?

Morrison’s focus on skills shifts the blame. Suddenly it is not the failure of businesses to provide secure employment or the Morrison Government for a recession, but it is a failure of the job seeker for not being skilled enough.

We have already seen this approach from business groups with Innes Willox – chief of employer organisation Australian Industry Group and a member of the national COVID Commission – responding to a question on ABC’s Q&A. When a woman graduating with a media degree voiced concern about the lack of opportunities, Willox put the blame on her for not having the right skills.

Willox said,

“The economy will change shape and opportunities will emerge, and it’s about having skills that are transferable and portable.”

Later he even chastised her for studying media as opposed to nursing.

This is despite the Government's own website, dedicated to career advice for job seekers, claiming that media industries like advertising and graphic/web design will see strong growth. Shockingly, it even said that journalism will be stable.

The skills you need, not want

Hinted at in Willox’s talk of “transferable and portable” was what many employers mean by skills "reform" — reform tied closely to the gig-economy. 

Jennifer Westacott, the head of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), expanded on Willox’s comments: 

“First of all, we've got to in the short-term be able to get people skilled up much more quickly. So this [is the] whole point of short courses, micro-credentials.”

"Micro-credentials", or micro-accreditations, are not recognised in Australia but are generally short courses in specific skills.

Such courses are directly tied to the precarious employment of the gig economy. As Deakin University indicates

'...[The] "gig economy" is creating exciting new ways to buy and sell our own labour and capital.'

 Because of this, you should sign up to their version of micro-credentials (professional practice credentials) as 'a new way to ensure you stay up-to-date in an increasingly changing and competitive world'.

Deakin is one of many universities to offer “short courses” in Australia and, at $500 a pop, they encourage workers to perpetually spend on new certificates as they scrounge around for one short-term job after another. Deakin, BCA and others have euphemistically called this scenario “life-long learning”.

While universities have been quick to jump at micro-credentials, it will most likely fall on the VET sector to formally implement it, as the Morrison Government has been pushing for this for years.

'Reforming' VET to what end?

VET got a bad reputation during the VET FEE-HELP fiasco when the Gillard Government in 2012 introduced a HECS-type scheme for VET, in which the government paid education providers for students' courses.

This, combined with Rudd in 2008 allowing private VET providers greater access to government funding, saw dodgy for-profit VET institutions rort the scheme.

There was a massive increase in prices – with average course fees going from $4,060 in 2009 to $14,000 in 2015 – as providers got as many people as they could onto the VET FEE-HELP scheme seeing a five-fold increase in students between 2012 and 2015, at which point they are able to pocket the government money.

These dodgy providers did not much care if the students learnt anything or if they could pay the loan back and would often target vulnerable people, enticing prospective students with iPads.

This scheme, while created by Labor, carried well on into the Abbott Government years and saw public money funnelled into private institutions.

Victoria alone saw the number of publicly funded training hours in TAFE declined by almost 29% from 2009 to 2016, while it rose for private providers by almost 333%. By 2017, for-profit VET providers had over 60% of students.

Despite the blowout in the VET FEE-HELP scheme funding itself was one the decline in the decade before 2016 and is currently at its lowest in a decade.

With the debacles of the previous decade and a half in the VET sector resulting from privatisation and marketisation combined with a lack of funding, "reform" should surely address these issues?

Instead, Morrison is focusing on cutting the “red-tape” – which he sees as differing fees across states, itself a direct result of privatisation – and making VET industry-led, while not providing new funding.

This approach was seconded in a June 4 interim report on VET by the Productivity Commission, which recommended, 'governments consider reforms to make the VET system a more efficient, competitive market'.

This is despite the previous reforms in the sector – which occurred at a rate of once a month for the previous 25 years – recommending similar neoliberal policies.

Diverting attention

With business leaders and the Morrison Government pushing for VET reform to cater to the gig-economy and not increasing funding, the fact that hangs over the proposed changes is that there is no skill shortage, there is an employment shortage.

As Junankar explains: 

“There are ten unemployed people and one of them has a stamp that says ‘I have done training in x y and z,’ then you hire that person. But the other nine guys are going to be stuffed so what difference does it make? ...  the faces in the job queue might change but it doesn’t change the length of the queue.”

The focus on skills allows the Morrison Government to hit two birds with one stone. It can use the consensus around VET reform to further entrench the gig-economy giving further power to business. At the same time, it is diverting responsibility from the Government to those looking for work.

Sam Brennan is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @samkbren.


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