Structural barriers to employability for at-risk youth

Paula McDonald; Katherine Moore; Deanna Grant-Smith, Queensland University of Technology.

Young Australians who are at risk of long term unemployment face a range of system-level challenges. Our research draws on four separate research projects to identify these challenges and to subsequently inform policy and institutional change. Data comprised: (1) 50 de-identified cases of young job seekers registered with a job active provider; (2) 80 in-depth interviews with young job-seekers; (3) 15 semi-structured interviews with employment consultants; (4) responses from a large representative, national survey; and (5) 6 store-level case studies in the retail sector.

The first challenge identified is the ‘training treadmill’, whereby youth are often encouraged to participate in fee-paying, accredited courses which may not align with their career goals. Participation in multiple, disjointed qualifications can lead to education debt which can be especially onerous for those who go on to work for minimum or near-minimum wages.

Second, we question the adequacy of pre-assessment and support provided by government-funded job active agencies to address personal factors affecting employability, such as mental health issues and unstable accommodation.

Third, there are dubious practices associated with the acquisition of work experience through unpaid work or as part of mutual obligation requirements. Although workplace exposure may be an effective employability strategy, young people often face significant direct and indirect costs associated with participation including long travel times, decreasing paid work hours, special clothing/equipment and additional childcare costs. Finally, there are significant opportunities for organisations to more effectively support the maintenance of youth employment and recognise their social responsibility to Australia’s long-term unemployed.

Our research considerably extends what has been the prominent focus in government policy and media rhetoric which is how to make young people more job-ready. For example, there is an urgent need to address the tension between the emphasis on gaining essential work experience and the typical employer determined recruitment criteria. On-the-job support for young job seekers is also crucial to maximise positive employment outcomes. Overall, there needs to be a stronger focus on the range of systemic issues which may inform more effective structural responses to the persistent and worsening problem of youth unemployment.

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