28 July, 2017

PaTH: confusing acronym, shoddy programme

By Rosie Scroggie

With little fanfare, the Turnbull government formally launched their Youth Jobs PaTH program in April. The program was a 2016 budget initiative, and it promised to “assist 120,000 young Australians into internships to help them gain real world, practical experience in a business.” It has attracted criticism on several fronts – the likelihood of it being rorted by employers; the equivalent $4 per hour wages; and the way the program ignores the real problem of youth unemployment – a lack of jobs. PaTH attempts to replace a core component of what TAFE does – preparing young people for the workforce. However, its model for doing this is full of short cuts, includes employer subsidies, and ignores individual student needs and broad, meaningful vocational education. In many respects, PaTH is just another Coalition strategy to undermine TAFE.

PaTH stands for Prepare, Trial and Hire. It targets young job seekers, and claims to assist them into paid employment. The model works by providing pre-employment training (Prepare); followed by “internships” (Trial), which could, possibly, lead to an ongoing position (Hire) and a tidy $10,000 incentive payment to the employer.

Prepare

The first part of PaTH - Prepare - is focused on providing pre-employment training. Training only started to be delivered in April, so it is hard to know at this stage the quality or efficacy of this training. The PaTH website claims that the training will “help young people understand the expectations of employers in both the recruitment process and as a new employee in the workplace” as well as “focus on job preparation…job hunting skills, career development, interview skills.”

While some young job seekers may find this sort of training useful, past experience tell us that often pre-employment training will lecture, patronise or demonise young job seekers. The idea that young job seekers need to be taught about “employer expectations” in order to get a job ignores the fact that youth unemployment figure is just over 13% (almost the highest it has been in the past decade). Not all young job seekers are unemployed because of a lack of understanding of what employers want. There are 6.3 jobseekers per vacancy being advertised. There are simply not enough jobs to go around, and of course younger and less experienced job seekers will be less likely to get the few jobs that are available. Pre-employment training, particularly the sort that lectures young people about wearing a clean shirt and being on time is not going to help people into jobs.

The other concerning aspect of Prepare is who is providing this training. A cursory look at the list of approved providers who will be developing and delivering the training does encouragingly show that many TAFE institutes are involved. However, they are far from the majority provider. Private providers appear to have flocked to this initiative, including Max Employment Services. Max also acts as a Jobactive provider for the government and gained a lot of media coverage in 2015 around alleged rorting of the government’s Job Services Australia programme. Four Corners allege that Max Employment enrolled 141 people into a training course, despite the fact its training room could only fit 15 jobseekers at a time. There is also a lot of anecdotal discussion about Max forcing job seekers into the courses they run, whether or not they are aligned with the job seekers interests, existing skills or employment aims. Many of these massive, foreign owned companies rarely have individual job seekers best interests in mind – they are purely driven by profit. The fact that providers such as Max Employment Services are participating in PaTH when they have such an uncertain history in employment services is concerning.

Trial

The second part of PaTH – Trial – has probably had the most public scrutiny. In Trial young job seekers complete a “voluntary” “internship” to “gain real work experience”. These are the much criticised $4 per hour internships. The job seekers who complete these “internships” will continue to receive their welfare benefits, as well as a small supplementary payment. For some workers, this will work out to a $4 per hour payment, well below the minimum wage. Meanwhile, the business received an upfront payment of $1000 “in recognition of the costs of hosting the internship.

The upfront payment makes it hard to fathom how the government will manage to ensure that these “internships” are quality placements where job seekers will actually learn useful skills, rather than free labour. The Australian Council of Trade Unions recently circulated some job ads for the PaTH program that had been sent to them – the roles included a Café Allrounder, a Subway “sandwich artist” and a Receptionist. Why should these employers receive free labour for 12 weeks, as well as $1000? More importantly, why should young job seekers be forced to work for under the minimum wage while their boss ascertains if they are “suitable for ongoing employment” as a sandwich artist? Isn’t that what the probationary period is for? Unpaid trials are illegal. Why should it be any different for a young person who has done nothing wrong but enter the job market at a time of high youth unemployment?

The other deficient aspect of Trial is that the on-the-job skills that the job seeker will learn will be specific to only that workplace. In a boss-centric program, there is no incentive, let alone any need, for the employer to give any training or experiences to the job seeker that give a broader understanding of the industry. The Subway “sandwich artist” will most likely be proficient at working at Subway at the end of their internship – but there is no guarantee they would have demonstrable skills to walk into the MacDonalds across the road and get a job.

Hire

Hire is the final stage of PaTH. It refers to the $10,000 payment made to employers who hire an eligible young job seeker between the ages of 15 and 25. You can think about Hire as being the third step of PaTH, but this payment can also happen outside of PaTH. With the program so recently started, it is hard to know how many young job seekers who complete Prepare and Trial will go onto be hired into ongoing work.

Following the debacle of the VET FEE HELP program, where private for-profit providers made millions of dollars rorting the scheme, and exploiting vulnerable people, it is easy to see the risks that unscrupulous a businesses could find a way to repeatedly take “interns”, collect the upfront $1000 fee, and then find reasons not to hire. The savings in employment costs during Trial would more than make up for the loss of the $10,000 incentive payment to Hire. For an unscrupulous businesses, not concerned with the rights of workers, free labour from an eager to please young person desperate for an ongoing job would be an excellent cost saver and productivity raiser.

Why not try TAFE?!

The recent Federal Budget clearly demonstrates the Coalition’s contempt for TAFE. They do not, or will not, see the value in public vocational education.

Instead of paying subsidies to employers and fees to private sector employment services and training providers, imagine if the government instead supported TAFE.

At a properly funded public TAFE, for a modest fee a young job seeker could go and do a Certificate in something they were interested in. Retail. Hospitality. Aged Care. Building. They could decide what sort of working life might suit them.

At a properly resourced public TAFE they would have access to industry professionals in their teachers and lecturers who could teach them broadly about the industry – not narrow, workplace specifics that suit only one boss. Students would gain a real idea of what the whole industry looks like, and how they could work in that industry

Through TAFEs’ connections with industry and local employers they may be able to find an apprenticeship or a traineeship. A trusted teacher might be able to recommend them for a job, or at least be a valuable referee on an application.

If the Federal Government would properly fund TAFE, and concentrate on creating jobs; TAFE could concentrate on not “preparing” and “trialling” young job seekers – but teaching and nurturing the next generation of workers.

This is union business

Every aspect of the PaTH programme ’ favours employers. It creates a class of underpaid and demonised workers. The whole union movement must loudly condemn this programme.

Young people should have the right to access vocational education so they can make decisions about how they want to spend their working lives. Young people also have the right to be properly paid for work.

PaTH punishes young people for the current economic climate and high youth unemployment they find themselves grappling with through no fault of their own. The Federal Government should concentrate on job creation, not punishing youth. The union movement must stand with these young workers and help in the fight to protect not only public vocational education, but fair working conditions.

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