Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Sustaining Transitions from Welfare to Work: The Perceptions of Employers and Employment Service Providers

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Sustaining Transitions from Welfare to Work: The Perceptions of Employers and Employment Service Providers

Article excerpt

Introduction

This article is concerned with sustaining disadvantaged jobseekers' transitions to paid work, in contexts shaped by regional disadvantage and national priorities of 'activation' or 'welfare to work'. As in other Western liberal states (Esping-Andersen 1996: 16; Daguerre & Taylor Gooby 2004-29; OECD 2007), Australian welfare policies have, over more than two decades, seen intensified requirements for citizens receiving income support payments to seek and take up paid work. However, rather than achieving sustained transitions from welfare into work, many jobseekers maintain only short periods of employment, or move repeatedly between joblessness and positions with low skill requirements, low pay, few or fluctuating hours and few pathways to better opportunities (Richardson & Miller-Lewis 2002; Perkins et al. 2009; MINTRAC 2010; Wilkins et al. 2011; Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work in Australia 2012). In 2011, for example, just under half of jobseekers were in employment three months after receiving assistance from Australia's employment service system, Job Services Australia (JSA). However, more than half of this group were employed on a casual, temporary or seasonal basis and one-third were underemployed, in that they were seeking more hours (DEEWR 2011: 7). Around one-third of those who did obtain work after receiving assistance were no longer employed three months later, with outcomes being considerably worse among jobseekers with multiple barriers and complex needs, including Indigenous jobseekers and those who were homeless (DEEWR 2012: 8, 14).

These trends, which have persisted despite a series of systemic reforms intended to improve the capacity and effectiveness of employment services, are problematic because employee turnover disrupts workflow and raises recruitment and training costs (Phillips & Connell 2003) and because it undermines national productivity and skill utilisation and development. Poor job retention also has sub-optimal financial and wellbeing outcomes for individuals, as cycling between joblessness and poor quality work has been shown to adversely affect mental and physical health (Butterworth et al. 2011a; Butterworth et al. 2011b). For single mothers for example, the unpredictable nature of casual work can be a particular source of insecurity and dissatisfaction (Bodsworth 2010; Cook 2010; Cook & Noblet 2012). Indeed, precarious employment is especially problematic for vulnerable people, because job loss can precipitate events which compound disadvantage, including relationship breakdown and loss of housing (Brotherhood of St Laurence 2009; Perkins et al. 2009; OECD 2010; Australian Social Inclusion Board 2011).

This article explores issues of employment retention and practical ways to sustain the movement of disadvantaged people from income support into paid work. First, we examine the welfare and labour market policies that shape the contexts in which income support recipients are expected to transition into paid work, including the design of the employment service system. The article then examines the range of strategies for sustaining transitions from unemployment into work which have been documented in previous studies, before adding findings from a structured qualitative study with two sets of stakeholders: employment service providers and managers in the organisations which employ the jobseekers they support.

As we show, interviewees identified a range of structural as well as individual, supply-side barriers to retention, reflecting many of the themes identified in previous studies. However, the research also highlights considerable yet previously under-emphasised scope to intervene at the meso-, or organisational level. This adds depth to understandings of how the actions, practices, interactions and joint strategies of employers and employment service providers can help shape employment dynamics, the quality of work and outcomes for disadvantaged jobseekers. …

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