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Plight of the 'skilled unemployed'

'Skilled unemployed' by Chris JohnstonAt first I avoided it. I avoided filling out forms and jumping into the endless queues at my local Centrelink office. I reasoned that Centrelink is for those who are in real need, people who are struggling to make ends meet. 

Centrelink is a safety net for those who are out of work; unable to work; with limited capacity to work; or studying to improve suitability for work. None of this particularly applied to. After returning home from six months of volunteer work overseas, my plan was that I would spend a couple of weeks looking, and that after a few resumés were sent out, the phone calls would start pouring in.

They didn't. Almost two months after my return to Australia (with less than two dollars to my name and a huge credit card bill) I had had one job interview, sent out resumé after resumé, addressed numerous selection criteria, and written page-long cover letters touting my attributes to potential employers.

All of this happened quickly. Two years ago, I was in the position where I was finishing up one job on Friday and starting the next on Monday. I'd received three or four job offers before settling on one near my home.

Each week, as part of my previous job working with adult migrants in Sydney's South, I would sign forms and fax letters verifying that, yes indeed, my students were fulfilling their activity agreements by attending language classes.

Now, I found myself on the other side of the desk. Every two weeks, I had the unenviable experience of going into my local Centrelink office to report on all paid work and voluntary work completed over the specified time period. My activity agreement required me to apply for 10 jobs a fortnight. By this point I'd applied for well beyond that figure with little success.

It was reported on 11 June by the Sydney Morning Herald that job losses during the month of May pushed the unemployment rate up to 5.7 per cent.

'If you look over the last six months, we've had about 80,000 full-time jobs lost in that period of time, and pretty much no overall job creation,' said Su-lin Ong, senior economist at RBC.

Sadly, to be employed doesn't always mean full-time or permanent part-time employment. One could work a casual job for five hours a month, and still not be included in unemployment statistics. Thousands of underemployed workers are unable to survive on the hours they are given.

Similarly, thousands of skilled migrants who want to work are placed in language learning programs as a way of reducing the unemployment statistic.

'The rise in unemployment is remarkable,' said JP Morgan economist Helen Kevans. 'It's the highest since 2003 and a sign of things to come.'

As I wrote letters recommending my skills and qualifications to potential employers, my empathy for my former students grew. No wonder many just give up trying. It is a hard thing to do, to present yourself in a positive light, rejection after rejection. You stop believing the things you write. You start to wonder if your qualifications, experience or even human dignity mean anything in this money-driven economy.

I was what is referred to as a 'skilled unemployed person'. That is, a person who has not only job experience, but qualifications to match a number of criteria which employers seek. The skilled unemployment rate is now at the highest it has been since 2001, and jobseekers are currently outnumbering positions by almost 10,000.

Skilled workers are among the highest number of casualties of the current economic breakdown. Nearly 43,000 since the start of 2009 are counted as among those who have lost their jobs.

At this point, with all this wasted talent standing in Centrelink queues in the hope of not being there next week, Australia risks becoming a society where inequality and poverty are the norm. The rich still get richer, the poor get poorer.

Organisations such as the St Vincent de Paul Society have all reported a spike in those seeking emergency accommodation. Much of this caused by interest rates that have risen steadily over the past two years and have only recently been brought down in the face of imminent economic meltdown.

There are thousands of unemployed, marginalised people on Centrelink who struggle each day to live on a small amount of money.

Now, in addition to these, a new underclass of skilled, qualified, highly educated people is also in there. Talent and work-ethic is being wasted, and it doesn't seem it will change in the near future.

Post script: This week, after two and a half months of searching, I returned to my former job — teaching adult migrants in south/western Sydney. Once again, I will be working with people who struggle to make ends meet and line up each fortnight in Centrelink queues. This time, I will view their experiences through a different lens.

Beth DohertyBeth Doherty recently returned from Asuncion, Paraguay where she worked with Jesuit education organisation Fe y Alegria. She is a former assistant editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: doherty, skilled unemployed, unemployment, global financial crisis, adult migrants, centrelink, jobless



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Existing comments

Beth, thank you for this piece. I am sorry to hear the journey home from Paraguay found you confronting a more harrowing track to climb. You words contributed to placing a human face on the statistics. Understanding the weight placed on ordinary people as they struggle with all the negative stuff that comes with not being able to work for a living is not possible without hearing the voice of those who have/are experiencing it. Yours is a voice of someone who has not given up in the face of this strange creature we call ‘economy’. I sometimes think of those who have lost hope in the face of so much rejection. Then there are those who have become numb by generational inactivity and have come to see dignity in terms of being fed directly by the system. Work is an important right. Being able to contribute is so crucial to coming to a sense of who we are. We are like all the molecules within us and around us - made to be involved, created to be connected.

Vic O'Callaghan | 22 June 2009  

Dear Beth,I trained as a registered nurse in my youth and fell ill during the last recession. I was unemployed for just on ten years and recieved over 80 letters of rejection. I'm afraid you just have to persevere and maybe do some volunteer work. Eventually I got a job in sales which was not what I wanted but it got me back into the workforce. I'm afraid there's no guarantee ever of employment. You just have to persist.
It's not good enough. Good luck.

Ros | 22 June 2009  

The face of the contemporary workforce is changing at a faster rate than ever. It's no good bewailing the fact, you just have to knuckle down and accept what is available until your dream job comes along (hopefully before too long) I mean kids these days, they don't want to start at the bottom and work their way up, they want to start at the top and work their way sideways. This is not realistic. Harry Dent reckons we are in for the worst depression ever next year. Time to bunker down, get rid of your debts and right size your expectations.

Kevin V Russell | 22 June 2009  

It is a very chalenging situation, I can share a similar situation, I was registered in the CRS, (commonwealth rehabilitation service) they asked me to look for 3 jobs at least, per week, I was desperate to find a job, so instead of 3 my goal was 15 per week at the end I had 5 jobs interviews in 1 1/2 week, but not success, only at the end I ended up with chest pains, declared myself bankrupt, because of my disabilities I ended up with a pension, I considered myself lucky, millions are not, really this system does not work, at least I have a unit and my needs at least are covered my basics, and restart everything again. The most important thing I suppose is not to lose faith, thanks for the article and thanks for Beth Doherty for her work in Paraguay and the article.

Roberto Monterrosa | 22 June 2009  

Beth, I had nine years in and out of contract work, seeking full-time secure employment. I always had very good references from employers and over a two year period applied for fifty jobs. My doctorate and the books i'd written started to seem farcical. The really bad and sad thing is that demoralisation is hard to fight under such circumstances. I could write a book about the experience, including its socio-psycholgoical elements, the way others started relating to me differently, the catch-22 cycle, etc. I finally obtained on-going employment nearly three years ago. It makes wage slavery seem great - but it really shows the absurdity of capitalism as a system that literally wastes human potential and capacity.

Barry York | 22 June 2009  

I have been a part time guard for 6 months after an argument with my now boss over price of an item sold in the shopping centre's bookshop, after shingles sickness and unemployment for 20 years, and many failed employment initiations. I am trying for further employment so that now I can support my wife who is unable. I have to work locally which is difficult for an economic policy graduate, and have had adverse professional opinion on my own ocular deterioration. When one is 60 I think I am fortunate and wish to continue my rehabilitation and use my determination to win through with a positive attitude as I consider my greatest hindrance would occur with a weakened will as I feel now I have fully recovered from the head trauma experienced after being ejected through a car windscreen in early 70s. I trust this encourages your students. I am now encouraging immigrant neighbours in the same situation. You may respond if you wish.

Stephen Coyle | 22 June 2009  

Hi Beth

Great piece! I came crashing back to reality after receiving my first rejection email yesterday. After receiving an interview for the first job I applied for, I was so certain that at least one of my 20-odd applications would be accepted that I started to get complacent. Back to full-time job searching now, and wildly oscillating between hopeful and afraid.

And in response to Kevin V Russel: I am so sick of hearing cliches about Gen Y and our inability to knuckle down and work our way up from the bottom! I have two honours degrees, industry experience, and I'm getting knocked back from jobs serving coffee! A friend of mine only just found work after six months of rejections - he graduated from law and finance at the top of his class from the country's best university, and had a year's experience in a prestigious graduate program before the GFC hit and he was made redundant. The baseless claims made about Gen Y (and published fortnightly in weekend broadsheets) are a distraction; a half-hearted attempt to deflect the Baby-boomers' culpability for the current financial crisis on to its victims.

Edwina B | 23 June 2009  

I found the worst problem was potential employers asking me why on Earth I would choose to move away from such a desirable and (perceived) glamorous career in film post production.

Answer: there were less than 50 potential employers in Australasia, a job query could check them in an hour or so, at any time there were no more than 20 productions active, they liked to employ only those whom they had worked with before--making it hard to resettle in Oz after many years in NZ and--most urgently--I was on the bones of my b*m! It could have been worse, I might have been an actor.

It was a long climb via voluntary work, then 12 hours a week part time work then seriously dropping my standards of hope to gain a final and undemanding job.

One benefit to be gained from experiences like these is the aquisition of survival skills, somehow you learn to live on half your old income, and find skill satisfaction in other ways, personal and professional.

Ross Chambers | 23 June 2009  

There is a message here for all of those who think the world is crying out for "well rounded" 3 or 4 year generalist degree in the "soft options" stream.

I hope that those currently guiding the current batch of secondary students on their career path will tell them that they should train for something that the world wants - a trade or a career directed tertiary course. There are no free lunches!

Peritech | 26 June 2009  

Beth, I read your article today as my manager has dramatically downsized my time in our Migrant English program. I have been trying to make a career of teaching English as a Second language to adults for the past 10 years. Over the last year, many of my students have stopped attending classes feeling jaded and depressed at not gaining the necessary language to get a job other than fruit picking. I've felt the frustration and despair of my students over the years and your article really was timely for me.

Cathy Schier | 26 June 2009  

I have a 32yr old son with some computer and music skills and borderline learning difficulties. He has been job searching since age 17! Thousands of appropriate and inapproptiate job aplications; just copes with Centrelink requirements for new start. Some NEW START. Resilience of an abnormal degree and no one at Centrelink cares tuppence for his problems.

odette | 27 June 2009  

In response to Edwina I would observe that anyone with two honors degrees should already have a wide range of work experience that would be of use to potential employers. You just have to market yourself more effectively. Or here's a thought, create your own job, after twenty years in the public service that's what I did. I work longer hours now but I am certainly more productive and I enjoy almost every minute of it.

Kevin V Russell | 16 May 2010  

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