Opinion | New attitude to youth training crucial

TAKE IT HIGHER: In the next decade 'let’s put education and training to the fore'.

TAKE IT HIGHER: In the next decade 'let’s put education and training to the fore'.

Ten years ago the chilly winds of the global financial crisis started to blow. By August 2008 an economic cyclone pounded our economy.

Two things softened the blow of the crisis in the Hunter. One was the actions of the federal Labor government which poured upwards of $50 billion – somewhat indiscriminately it needs to be said – into the national economy.

The other was the surge in investment in coal mining. New and expanded mines drove the ratio of jobs to people in the non-Newcastle portion of the Hunter from 46 per 100 in August 2007 to an amazing 62 per 100 a year later, and the ratio stayed on this high for the following five years.

Importantly, young job seekers caught the wave with 1115 workers aged 15 to 24 years employed in mining across the region in 2011. Most of these were valley kids.

However, not all parts of the region caught the wave, at least for any length of time. Uplift in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie dissipated by Christmas 2010 and the jobs ratio for the coastal part of the region then fell significantly over the next three years. But in the valley the surge continued. By 2014 the jobs ratio for the valley reached record levels at 65 per 100, equal to the figure for Greater Sydney, no mean feat given the cream-rich diet of our state capital.

Then coal prices collapsed and mining investment dried up. 

Young workers in the valley were the hardest hit. By mid-2015 youth unemployment in Muswellbrook topped 14 per cent, Maitland nudged 12 per cent and Cessnock peaked at 17 per cent.

The wider labour market also tanked. The valley’s jobs ratio fell 20 per cent, reaching a paltry 52 jobs per 100 persons in January 2015. Since then it has recovered a little, to around 60 jobs per 100 persons, roughly the same as Newcastle.

Coal investment has now shifted to the very upper reaches of the Hunter. There is population growth up there. But in the middle of the valley population growth has ceased. Unemployed workers in towns like Singleton and Muswellbrook have drifted to greener pastures. 

But the youth, where are they? Moving to Newcastle for a job is an unlikely option. And only the toughest or luckiest survive in Sydney without formal skills and job experience.

Recently I completed a study of youth unemployment in western Sydney. It shows that for every cluster of youth registered as unemployed there is an equally large group who has given up both job searching and any form of training. It’s highly likely the valley has similar clusters of youth who have stopped looking for a job and not bothered to enrol in full-time training.

It’s funny, through the years whenever I talk about the poor job prospects of kids without post-school training there are always naysayers who claim that investment in education and training is wasted on many.

Perhaps in the past an untrained young worker did OK. Coal mines, factories and large retailers had vacancies to fill. But the days of industrial and mining surges that employ untrained youth are over. And increasingly our services sectors require workers with advanced skills.

The past 10 years were quite a ride. Remember they were circumstances generated by outsiders. The next 10 years will be up to us. Let’s put education and training to the fore this time round.

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.

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