Workers wanted, no hardhats required

Australia is set for massive growth in the number of jobs in health and social assistance over the coming years, but there are big risks including qualification silos, the undermining of our TAFE system, inadequate pay and career pathways, and a lack of diversity.

In the post below, David Hayward, Director of the Future Social Service Institute, looks at the challenges and opportunities and concludes that it’s time we started attracting more people to the social service industry, training the workforce to have the skills required to properly meet people’s needs, and developing new professions and careers.

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David Hayward writes

When we talk about jobs, particularly when it’s politicians doing the talking, the high-vis vests and hard hats are never far away. And if it’s not the vests, it might be people in lab coats checking test tubes, or a boffin telling us we all need to learn code.

But all these amount to a huge red herring,  what social scientists sometimes call “an imaginary”.

This is because manufacturing, science, hospitality, retail, finance and construction are not the major sources of job growth.

In the case of manufacturing, jobs have been falling and will continue to do so for as far as the eye can see.

Even those fancy submarines that were announced with great fanfare last year won’t revive a sector that’s destined to continue to shrink. $50b of investment will create barely 2,800 jobs.

Where will most of the jobs be created? They will be in a part of the economy that is rarely thought of as an industry at all: health and social assistance, the heartland of our rapidly growing social economy.

It is here that a cool 1.5 million jobs are currently to be found, or nearly 13 per cent of all employment. 

It’s here that a massive 250,000 new jobs will be created over the next five years, almost twice the number to be formed in the next fastest growing sector of professional, scientific and administrative work.

Why is health care and social assistance set for robust growth? A large part is due to the rapid rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, while another big chunk is being driven by our rapidly aging populations structure. Another big chunk, particularly in Victoria, are jobs in family violence prevention and mitigation. 

Jobs on this scale would normally be seen as a policy victory, opening up a wonderful opportunity to craft new professions and careers in a service industry of the future; an industry that will need people not robots, and where the social returns can be sky high. 

But rather than develop a wide and fluid social service “industry”, we are currently re-creating silos. Vocational qualifications are geared up for narrow employment trajectories rather than a lifetime of employment in different parts of one large sector. 

To make matters worse, almost a decade of privatisation and marketisation have destroyed our once proud vocational education and training system. A goodly share of those who have studied for certificates and diplomas over the last decade know full well they paid through the nose for qualifications that are probably not worth the paper they are written on.

No wonder disability advocates are thumbing their noses at the prospect of requiring disability workers to be vocationally trained, preferring to employ people who have good values rather than bits of paper that could well have been bought. 

Added to this is the problem of pay. You don’t do social service work for the money, they say. True enough, but we’ll need to do better than that if we are to encourage our best and brightest to see social services as their future career, helping to make sure those employment gaps aren’t allowed to grow too large.

Without qualifications and a grand career structure, there is no way we will be able to fill all those jobs being created at such a frantic pace, and which will continue to be created over coming decades.

Without those qualifications there is no way our social economy will be able to grow and prosper in the way it should. An opportunity to lead the world in social service delivery may have been lost. 

Perceptions of the social service industry need to shift, and people need to be attracted to it as a well- paid, well-valued, high-quality and respected field of work.

People losing jobs in dying industries such as coal and manufacturing need to see social services as the workforce of the future, and be helped to reframe their mindset and skillsets towards it.

Those who receive social services also need to be more involved in designing them, and in training workers who provide them, to ensure these services meet their needs.

More workers are also needed in rural and regional areas.

Emerging studies are showing the NDIS workforce has underrepresented rates of young people, men, people from culturally diverse backgrounds and Aboriginal people. More people from these communities need to be attracted to the social service workforce, to provide culturally appropriate services.

It’s time Australia stopped being misdirected by the high-vis vests when we talk about jobs. 

It’s time we started recognising the biggest growth industry we have, is in fact the one charged with helping us all look after each other, now and increasingly, long into the future.

It’s time we started attracting more people to the social service industry, training this workforce to have the skills required to properly meet people’s needs, and developing new professions and careers that can be proudly taken to the world.

To do this, politicians need to put down their treasured hardhats and high-vis vests, move with the times and start talking social services and redirecting resources to it, when they talk about jobs.

The Future Social Service Institute is a collaboration between the Victorian Council of Social Service and RMIT University, supported by the Victorian Government. We aim to support the not-for-profit social service sector and its workforce to be service-delivery leaders at a time of major growth and disruption.

www.futuresocial.org     @FutureSocialAU     /FutureSocialAU

Professor David Hayward is Director, Future Social Service Institute; Senior Advisor, Public Policy and the Social Economy, RMIT Policy and Impact Team; Chair, RMIT Academic Board,  RMIT University.