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A summer with Centrelink: Bad training and worse policy

A critique of Centrelink’s new Employability Skills Training.

The three-month summer break, for most students, is usually a time spent hanging out in the sun with mates or, more importantly, watching cricket. However, as someone unemployed since the early days of the lockdown last year, I had the misfortune of being ‘mutually obligated’ to participate in the new Employability Skills Training course: a 3-week intensive course aimed at young jobseekers under the age of 25. Although being forced to participate in the program was a rather grim prospect, I maintained a cautious optimism that I might learn something useful. The training I ended up receiving was anything but.

The EST is part of the new Employment Services Trial, a massive bureaucratic overhaul of the current JobSeeker system. Under the new model, the government is substantially increasing funding for private third-party job providers and training organisations, for providing their ‘services’ to job seekers. On the flip side, job seekers like me are forced to participate in intensifying mutual obligation requirements, including training programs such as the EST. 

The course content itself involved teaching basic common knowledge, such as communicating clearly, and following a procedure properly. Participants had to demonstrate such ‘skills’ as being able to write a mock email requesting leave, and washing the sink safely. The low bar for assessing participants on their prior understanding and ability to perform basic tasks was extraordinarily demeaning – it was frustrating to be treated as though we were incompetent or overly inexperienced. The pressure heaped onto participants by the overworked trainer made breezing through the content impossible. Deciphering and repeating poorly written assessments made simple tasks laborious, while the constant threat of having one’s payments cut amplified the stress present in the learning environment.

The trainer’s attitude only heightened feelings of humiliation. They consistently pounced on any mistakes that participants made, condescendingly querying how anyone could ever get a question wrong. However, seemingly irrelevant to the course (as though they kept running out of material), most interactions with the trainer involved them providing faux self-help psychology advice. This advice was deeply patronising, pathologising our joblessness as a consequence of merely being depressed or disheartened. They claimed that simply being positive and doing things to get ourselves into good moods, like listening to music or going for walks, could fix these issues and increase our productivity. Being patronised in this way had the opposite effect.

Clearly, dominant attitudes towards unemployed people had permeated into the course’s content and the instructor’s attitude. But further to that, the course’s problems were indicative of further government policy failures addressing youth unemployment. Years of propaganda stigmatising unemployed people have fostered harmful attitudes, which were reproduced in the course. These attitudes have allowed the government a platform to enact similarly harmful policies.

Forcing job seekers into arbitrary and unhelpful training courses while maintaining payment rates below the poverty line is not only cruel, but fails to take stock of the current state of the labour market: young people are intelligent and knowledgeable, and jobs simply aren’t available. At present, according to ABS data comparing job vacancies to unemployment rates, there is one job available for every nine job seekers. When considering factors such as youth unemployment, or disparities in job vacancies across different industries, the situation appears even grimmer. The government has failed to take differences between job seekers and within industries into account.

Furthermore, both the government and job providers have failed to adequately inform young people that access to more suitable, free training is currently available. At present, job seekers have fee-free access to a wide range of TAFE courses through the JobTrainer program, as well as training programs for qualifications such as RSA or White Card, free of charge through their job provider. Forcing job seekers into redundant training programs without publicising other more useful options defeats the purpose of the JobTrainer policy. It demonstrates a desire to patronise rather than trust young people to obtain practical training for themselves.

The drastic increases in the JobSeeker rate during the pandemic period of mid-2020 showed that the government could eradicate poverty. However, by funnelling resources into redundant and inadequate training programs and punitive surveillance bureaucracy, the government maintains the cruel welfare apparatus keeping young jobseekers in poverty. The recent meagre increase to the JobSeeker payment, along with the employer dob-in line (an all-new mechanism of punishment and surveillance for jobseekers) reflect this ethos.

Putting full faith and stock in young people’s autonomy involves allowing them access to training programs that will suit their skills and experience, instead of forcing them to participate in degrading and patronising courses. It also involves properly increasing the JobSeeker rate, so that young people can provide themselves with the tools and equipment they need to create support structures for themselves and their community.

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