Punished by the lucrative welfare-to-work industry: ‘I was contemplating suicide‘, a story published this week in The Guardian Australia, tells us “[t]he outlook for the most disadvantaged jobseekers is bleak: only a quarter will find work each year. The privatised system is leaving them behind“. Jobactive, the government’s employment program, set up to help people get off welfare into employment is achieving one thing for the most disadvantaged: entrenching them into jobless poverty.

That’s what happens when the have-lots write the policies and run the programs for the have-nots.

If you’re disabled, Indigenous, live in the wrong area, are a single parent, an older, single woman, or just unlucky enough to have started from a low base, you’re very likely to be among those who cannot work enough to meet even basic security, housing, health and well-being needs.

When you can point to specific sectors of the community that have a high likelihood of being severely disadvantaged, the problem is not the programs; it’s the whole system – the system of jobs itself. That is, the jobs system based on the free market economy.

The theory is, allowing the market to regulate supply and demand will always produce the best results. You don’t need a degree to see that the assumption of equality between the supply and demand sides is a furphy. Just ask any of the 700,000 Australians who are unemployed or the 1.3 million underemployed who live hand-to-mouth.

Politicians throw billions of dollars at employment services that not only do nothing to equalise the opportunities for the disadvantaged, they systemise everything that is wrong with the system of jobs and employment today.

Recruitment profiling

We all know our brains are a cocktail of biases that cause us to make decisions based on inaccurate, but mentally efficient, processing of data. They make us, amongst other behaviours, over-value our belief in our own abilities and judgements, and to prefer people who look like us.

When employers write the job descriptions and interview people for those jobs, they are systemising their biases and then profiling job applicants against them. The result is the disadvantaged – who look nothing like the pictures of success the recruiters fancy of themselves – are never ‘suitable’ or a good ‘cultural fit’.

Punishment-based welfare programs reinforce the biases against the disadvantaged. That welfare recipients must prove they have undertaken certain job-seeking activities or the welfare is cut off, is because it is easier to manage if we can portray them as lazy, free-loaders. A system that gets them off their arses so they don’t just sit around all day is a good use of tax-payer money.

The degree of sophistication that is increasingly applied to weeding out these so-obviously ‘losers’ through ‘success’ or ‘talent’ profiling is like a disease that has spread insidiously into the everyday social psyche. It has become not only okay, but normal that everyone should be judged. Talent management is nothing but a violent assault on the sense of community, fairness, tolerance and trust that societies need to function healthily.

Job funding turns disadvantage into white noise

It’s bad enough that funding is given to job search service providers, but that the bulk of it goes to profit-making private providers defies every measure of intelligence. It’s not that organisations shouldn’t be able make a profit from services they provide, but when those profits are tied to a flawed system, it’s a certainty that as little of the money as possible will go to those it is supposedly intended to help. Corporate managers were weaned on targets and KPIs; they know how to produce numbers that maximise their gain.

It defies logic that better funding isn’t available to the job-givers, the employers. Programs that pay employers that meet certain criteria to offer jobs to the disadvantaged isn’t new, but they have never gone far enough. They need to be supported by a cohesive employment system, such as the ability to dismiss an unsuitable worker without fear of unfair dismissal. The right to dismiss wouldn’t be free, of course, there would be a process that makes the existing employer responsible for assisting the worker into their next job. Instead of a cohesive program and infrastructure, we’re subjected to piecemeal programs and politically-expedient soundbites about low unemployment and new jobs.

But isn’t this just a version of the ‘work for the dole’ program, you ask? Work for the dole is not a wage, it’s just another form of punishment-based welfare. It unfairly targets certain groups who are ‘obviously’ dole bludgers. Instead of helping employers pay a wage for workers that they train and manage to do real work, work for the dole is usually menial tasks that have no relevance to the real world of increasingly knowledge-based work. But then why would the government waste our precious taxes paying people who must be no-hopers?

In this system, job placement advisors could become employment advisors. By improving the skills of employers – especially small business that have no access to HR, except perhaps the type of HR advice that came from the industrial dark ages – it could just make them better employers and improve work for all employees.

Program changes like this wouldn’t be perfect, of course. The basic system of employment is still broken, but it would at least reduce the barriers currently disadvantaged job seekers face.

Funding isn’t going to the most important factor influencing employment

Considering everything we know about the digital technology’s impact on the way we live and consume, changing how we do business, and therefore how jobs are performed, there is very little action being taken to prepare the everyday employer and everyday worker for what all predictions tell us will be ground-shifting change.

Even if the number jobs that will be automated ends up lower than the predicted 46 per cent of jobs by 2030, we still have to deal with the number of total hours lost from jobs that still exist. We see this in the growing number of part time jobs that leave workers cobbling odd and infrequent hours of work into something resembling a living.

Once, tasks were aggregated into bundles that made up the components of a job. Receptionists, for example, used to fill time in between greeting customers with administrative tasks. But when those tasks, such as invoicing, or data entry, or making appointments isn’t needed anymore due to the abundance of out-of-the-box, low cost software, the number of receptionists needed drops. Instead of two full-timers, now two part-timers share the hours. The lowered complexity of their job means the wage also stays low.

When technology pulls out chunks of the tasks that people once did as part of a full-time job, of course part-time work is going to rise.

It’s bad news for employers, too. The old industrial reliable of efficiency and cost-cutting has little left to give. Instead of creating new value, aka, innovation businesses end up fighting it out for a piece of the commoditised pie. No wonder they think their survival depends on giving less work to people – and certainly none of it to that suspect set, the employment disadvantaged. The tragedy is, innovation that grows new value is a far easier proposition today with the abundance of digital technology and the near-zero cost of digital transactions than it ever was, but the skills and knowledge needed for it just aren’t there.

None of this is revelatory. These ideas and facts have been swirling around the media for so long, it’s almost boring. More white noise.

Incredibly, this week I rang an inner-metropolitan local council and spoke to a person who, according to the council website, is a head of department in the Community and Economic Development Division. I emphasised I wasn’t calling to sell anything, just seeking information. I explained that I was interested in the council’s commitment to digital capability development in its community, in its plans to engage with employers as the use of technology increased, in the impact on jobs and keeping jobs within its region. She told me there was nothing of the like currently being developed. I asked if this was an area of interest or concern to the council. No. Was it on the radar at all sometime in the near future? No.

She could have been just trying to fob me off, but a look through the council’s website seems to back her responses up. This is a council where the latest employment figures show a 34 per cent unemployment rate (against the national 5 per cent).

Employment status of Port Phillip

If the impact of digital change and opportunities isn’t of much concern to a local government where unemployment affects fully one third of its residents and sits at seven times the national average, no wonder the interest in doing something about it generally is, at best, lacklustre.

Contrary to popular belief, the biggest resistance to change comes not from fear but from comfort. People are loathe to change the status quo, when that means leaving the comfort of their present situation. This is particularly true when associated with that comfort is a sense of accomplishment. In the world where the prevailing narrative is the unemployed are slackers and the successful, clever, motivated and skilled, there is always going to be an over-optimism about the future and their ability to deal with it when the time comes.

The 16,000 residents of the city of Pompeii who died in the 79AD eruption of Mt Vesuvius thought they would be fine, too. It wasn’t that they were ignorant of the rumblings that had preceded the deadly eruption. Mt Vesuvius had erupted before, and the warning signs of a major eruption were well-known.

Pompeii was the early Roman equivalent of the Hamptons, a holiday seaside town for the wealthy. The privileged home owners weren’t in Pompeii when Mt Vesuvius erupted; they were in their other houses, away from the disruptive quakes and sulphur-filled air. The people left behind were the servants, slaves and peasants who had few means to leave, left to fend for themselves.

We’re not in a dissimilar situation today. Those who are comfortable do not want to disturb their status quo. Government can’t work on the jobs system because it would also tear down the illusion of economic success (5% unemployment which meets the definition of full employment) they need to sell us. The smug talent managers surrounded by their talented teams tell themselves they have the best people for organisational success – even though evidence points to better results, the more diverse the teams.

Workers, in the meantime, are still moulding themselves to fit job criteria despite every possibility that criteria could soon be outdated, if not completely irrelevant, with the onset of digital technology. Instead of adding digital literacy to basic education, we carry on oblivious. It is telling that few people even understand the meaning of the term ‘digital literacy’. Just as mathematical literacy doesn’t mean becoming a mathematician, digital literacy doesn’t mean working in IT. It means having the skills to live and work in a world where digital technology drives its daily transactions.

If digital technology were refugees or asylum seekers, every resource would have been mobilised by now to stop the queue-hoppers from stealing our jobs. But because our jobs are being stolen by our own, who really cares?

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