Devils in the details of 'optimistic' jobs report

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Last week Deloitte Access Economics released a report The path to prosperity: Why the future of work is human. Economist Chris Richardson featured in multiple media reports to iterate the principal messages from the report: robots will not take our jobs, 'work is becoming more secure, not less, and Australians are staying in their jobs longer than ever'.

Woman barista working a coffee machine (Photo credit: undrey / Getty Creative)While not taking issue with the data in the report, its key messaging is notably optimistic about contemporary work in Australia. The choices made in how the data is presented raises some interesting questions not about the overall figures concerning employment security, but about its distribution.

Despite all the headlines about human work being overtaken by technologies, there is wide acknowledgement that technologies will create new types of work, and that the human touch will remain vital to the workforce. Emotional intelligence is, as the report points out, central to the future of work. It is clear that machines are able to do routine jobs and they will make our lives easier. Humans will therefore continue to work, but they will work alongside machines.

What is concerning, however, is that the routine jobs that machines take away are also the sort of jobs that might have been done by young people — so-called entry-level jobs. We need to be asking how our young people will gain the experience they need, and employers call for, if there are no entry level jobs left.

A further concern is the high rate of young people in casual jobs. Approximately 75 per cent of youth aged 15 to 19, and 42 per cent of young people aged 20 to 24 are in casual work. If it is increasingly difficult for young people to find entry-level jobs, these statistics perhaps indicate increasing insecurity at the beginning of our working lives. The report acknowledges this challenge: 'Broadly, the labour market is performing well for those with just the right amount of work experience — but less well for those with too little or too much.' Unless employers take responsibility for training and supporting young people, including casual workers, this problem will continue.

There is also a slightly higher rate of women casual workers than men. Approximately 53 per cent of all casual workers are women while approximately 47 per cent are men. Women often work in the so-called 'caring' occupations that are frequently lower waged and casualised.

For example, education is an increasingly casualised workforce both in schools and in higher education. In universities, rates of insecure work — including casual and fixed term roles — exceed 50 per cent, and in many cases, 70 per cent. In hospitality, 55 per cent of workers are casually employed and in retail, 34.3 per cent. Together, hospitality, retail, and healthcare services account for half of all casual workers.

 

"The framing of the inquiry and its optimistic conclusions give an overall picture only. Whether employment is 'more secure than ever' remains debatable."

 

These industries all require what the Deloitte report calls 'skills of the heart', or EQ. That these industries employ such large numbers of casual workers raises the question of whether the future of this kind of work is casual. If women continue to take these kinds of jobs, then the future of women's work is casualised also.

In terms of secure work, the report emphasises that 'Casual jobs are a smaller share of all jobs than 20 years ago, and that share hasn't moved in over a decade.' The selection of the time frame of two decades omits the important change in the structure of employment in Australia. It was in the decade of the 1980s to the mid-1990s that the proportion of employees who were casual increased from around 13 per cent to 24 per cent. According to the report, this level of 24 per cent seems to be fairly stable. The question of whether this rate is an appropriate stable level of casualisation goes begging.

In addition to steady-state casualisation, the report claims that employment generally is 'as secure as ever'. This assertion is based upon the statistic that 45 per cent of people in full-time employment have been with their employer for more than five years, suggesting a 'trend towards tenure'. Although it is true that in 1988 it was only 40 per cent, based on the report's own figures this is not a simple upward trend — the figures have varied from decade to decade since the 1980s. On this basis, the claim seems a little exaggerated.

Although the data and analysis in the report provide an important snapshot of employment in Australia, the framing of the inquiry and its optimistic conclusions give an overall picture only. Whether employment is 'more secure than ever' remains debatable. And, in relying on aggregate figures about casualisation, the report fails to engage with questions of distribution of secure employment across industries, and across demographics. In light of the predictions made about the changing nature of work, the question of distribution is highly relevant.

Inevitably, employers will use the report to counter calls by casual employees for more secure work. It is a shame therefore that the report does not pay greater attention to identifying the gaps in work security and the risk that this poses not only to individuals, but to society more broadly.

 

 

Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Main image credit: undrey / Getty

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, robots, automation, casualisation, work

 

 

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Existing comments

Skills and more skills plus "emotional Intelligence"?? Why? The workforce is more skilled than the complexity demanded by the jobs available. Its very much a domestic consumption based economy of essential services here in Stralia. As advertised in the media by tertiary institutions, Stralia is not part of "the real world". If graduates want a real job with real work experience, they will find it overseas, not here. Compulsory education here should therefore conclude at grade 12.
Alex Andronoff | 24 June 2019


I think that the casual rates for the two youngest age ranges are not so surprising, given that most people in the 15-19 group and many in the 20-24 group are studying and not looking for full-time work. Of more interest is how many hours a week they are working, and what effect this has on their ability to concentrate on their studies, thus getting the good results that they need to get the entry-level jobs in their chosen careers - because having worked for 5 years for the same employer in hospitality or retail is not worth much in other fields. And of even more concern is the high level of casual and short term contracts in older age groups in fields that require significant education - nursing, allied health and education.
Judy Redman | 24 June 2019


Kate Galloway has raised some important issues about the current state of employment in Australia. I also agree with Judy Redman that many casual workers in the younger age groups are probably studying and not seeking full time work and the big issue is the high level of casual and short term contract workers in the older age groups. We have a situation where many Australian workers are underemployed and having to keep several part time jobs to support their families. On the other hand, many of those in full time work are being forced to work well over 40 hours per week and many of these workers do not receive overtime payment. There needs to be some political effort to change this very unfair situation, but as Kate points out, many employers are happy with this. In the 1970s the AMWU (then the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union - now the Australian manufacturing Workers Union) printed several booklets on political economy (Äustralia Ripped Off" and "Australia Uprooted" were two of them) that saw these problems looming and suggested several ways to avoid workers being in an under working and over working scenario. Hence, the AMWU had several campaigns to lower the hours of work for all workers to ensure that more could have adequate work to support their families. There was some success, but sadly, most of the large employers resisted this change. What makes the problem worse has been the decline in union support. Union struggles historically have achieved a certain level of good working conditions and fairness in Australian workplaces. The struggle for a fairer Australia continues.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 29 June 2019


Thank you- at last an article on current employment which sounded real. I witness migrants and refugees work experiences. They will do anything to get a job and this often involves below award wages,cash in hand work especially if they hold a Bridging or temporary visa. Even permanent visa holders get only casual work. African migrant works in a factory packing food. He is rung before 10am each day that he is to report for work at 2pm -11pm. He tells me that factory has 100s of workers over two sites- only 7 are permanent. He says none of his friends have full time permanent work. Student in inner city works in cafe, cash in hand, under award wages. When I ask why this educated articulate young women can’t negotiate something fairer after 18 months, she reminds me that there is a university full of students desperate for a job to survive. Refugees working in aged care are casual, called for shifts at short notice- no continuity of work or care. Whoever does this research is keeping their eyes&ears closed to the experience of workers at many levels. Australia is a different country from my days-a fair go long gone.
Pamela Curr | 30 June 2019


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