Secretary’s speech at the Workforce Australia National Forum – 29 August 2023

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Thank you, Simon and thank you Uncle Tony Garvey for that wonderful and forthright welcome to country.

I am excited to welcome you to this year’s Workforce Australia National Forum. I know TeamDEWR have put together a range of interesting and insightful sessions for you all.

It’s an interesting time for us as the Minister just said in his video message to you. We’ve got an interesting landscape given where the labour market is at, and given the various reviews going on and the work going on with the Employment White Paper and the Parliamentary Inquiry.

It’s a landscape where we have to acknowledge there is some uncertainty, but for good reason – we want to make sure the settings are right for people who are looking for a job right now.

This is a great opportunity to get together to talk about how we can be creative and collaborative for how we go about getting the best outcomes for our participants.

Current labour market 

The current labour market continues to defy expectations with unemployment remaining low at 3.7% in spite of raised interest rates.

However, the number of job vacancies has decreased since their peak last year, which indicates employment growth is likely to slow and the unemployment rate is forecast to rise over the next year to 4.5%.

Cost of living pressures are biting and nowhere is this felt more keenly than those who are reliant on income support.

For those who have been in income support for a lengthy period, it’s especially tough.

Long-term participants.1 are 69% of the Workforce Australia caseload (over 434,000 people).

We have done good work, getting this figure down below the peak of 78% in late 2021.

But this is still higher than at any point pre-COVID.

Perhaps more significantly, the extremely long-term caseload (5 years plus) has been trending up for years.

It currently comprises 24% of the total caseload, which is a historical high.

So how have we been going helping these people access the labour market in the best labour market conditions for workers in decades?

From April 2021 to June 2023, we have seen:

  • a welcome reduction for the long-term unemployed 2 as a proportion of the population of all unemployed people from 33.5% to 19.9%.

For very long-term unemployed 3

  • a reduction of the proportion of the population of all unemployed people from 14.6% to 10.6%.

We are making headway, as we would hope in this labour market.

But some recent work we’ve done applying a gender lens to our data troubles me.

Applying a gender lens

Women are over-represented among long-term participants on the caseload, including those who have been in employment services for extremely long periods.

And it’s getting worse: this skew has been increasing over time, strongly driven by growth in mature age women in employment services long-term.

Women are at increased risk of remaining on income support long-term. Even after taking into account other factors such as age, parenting responsibilities, level of education and work experience, the gap is still there.

Almost a quarter (24%) of long-term participants on provider caseloads at the end of July had declared earnings from employment in the previous 4 weeks.

So we know that many long-term participants are actively engaged in the workforce. This is especially true for women under Workforce Australia.

But our data shows us that women have a lower job placement rate than men, in every age group.

They are not able to get off income support, they are not working enough, or they are not being sufficiently well paid to get off income support.

When we look at our opportunities here, our interventions in Workforce Australia, the news doesn’t get better.

Workforce Australia Provider-sourced job placements are disproportionately recorded for men, and male-dominated occupations. We see this at every age.  

However, the evidence is when women do record a job placement they are more likely to convert to an employment outcome.

I have to ask….are we really doing our best to support women find a job? The women on our caseload?

Let’s look at some of the tangible ways we support job seekers and see what that tell us.

Women with a recorded job placement are also less likely to receive a wage subsidy.

8.5% of female job placements are assisted by a wage subsidy, compared to 12% of male job placements.

The importance of wage subsidies, particularly for long-term unemployed, is ensuring that these people get a go. And that’s quite a gap.

Women are receiving less help than men from the Employment Fund.

  • The average spend of Employment Fund is lower for women than for men - $218 for women and $298 for men.
  • For work-related training and licencing the average spend is $306 for women and $499 for men.

Is this a surprise to you?

Do you have thoughts on the reason for this?

And what might we do to ensure we are delivering fair and equal support to all genders?

Lifting women’s participation is a key to productivity and it’s fundamental to ensuring we have the skills we need in the future.

And let’s not overlook that women are entitled to equal economic opportunity and that is especially the case when it comes to government services.

A gender lens on skills and occupational shortage

There are structural issues at play here, as well as gender norms and conscious and unconscious bias.

We have one of the most gender segregated labour markets in the world.

And at the same time, we are experiencing a shortage of people with the right skills and qualifications for jobs we need in the future.

Gender segregation by occupation is a major barrier to addressing Australia’s skills shortages in critical occupations such as aged care, childcare and technicians and trade workers.

The Skills Priority List identifies skills with high current and future demand in the workforce.

Analysis by Jobs and Skills Australia of ABS Census data found that occupations in national shortage were twice as likely to have a gender-skewed workforce.

In particular, more than half of occupations in national shortage had a workforce that is heavily skewed towards men.

Gender pay gap

The challenge isn’t over once they have a job.

We know that once women are employed, the gender pay gap is persistent, although most recently narrowing.

Women do more unpaid care and domestic labour and only make up 39% of full-time workers in Australia compared to 67.2% of part-time workers.

How can we do better?

Women are more likely to be in less secure and less well paid work:

  • Despite making up 47.5% of the total workforce, 53.2% of casual employees are women.
  • Women are also more likely to have their pay set by an award minimum wage, with 59.1% of employees who have their pay set by an award being female.

Women are more likely to be juggling work opportunities with caring and family responsibilities.

Childcare is often not available in a way that fits with when women can work or study.

One might hypothesise, especially when we look at our caseload and see how many women are working, but not enough to get off income support, that this is because they can’t find regularised, sufficiently paid work that fits the hours when they are available.

We often talk about disadvantaged job seekers, but the constraints are not all theirs – many are systemic. And I’m not expecting you to fix all that, but it is on us to do better, and we do have an opportunity to think differently and challenge it. And in some ways, that’s what I’m asking you to do.

So how might we work with employers to structure their work to work for these women?

In Workforce Australia, we do have more flexibility than ever before to support women into the workplace though wage subsidised placements. 

This includes setting agreement terms for as low as 15 hours per week to suit women who may have caring responsibilities.

There are opportunities for both job seekers and employers in considering placements outside traditional gender roles across all industries.

I also encourage you to establish and leverage your relationships with industry to ensure that business isn’t missing out on potential workers:

For those sectors that predominantly hire women, consider the unconscious and conscious bias that might be impacting on your approach to placements and the sector’s openness to different candidates.

Those who need more workers in the future, such as the caring sector, need to be recruiting from all genders to meet their staffing needs. 

For industries that are male dominated, they similarly could consider whether they are genuinely inclusive workplaces for all genders. Take electricians for example.

Electricians are a vital occupation that are in persistent skills shortage across Australia 4


Only around 3 per cent of Australian electricians are women (May 2023), and female participation in trade apprenticeships has barely changed at all over the past decade.

The number of electricians we need just to install new solar and wind will grow from around 4,000 workers now, to over 7,000 by 2033 5

Jobs and Skills Australia is exploring the significant barriers that women face as part of its upcoming clean energy capacity study, which will be provided to Government in September.

Both providers and employers need to think differently and more inclusively secure the skills we need to transform to a net zero economy and how to provide our participants with all the opportunities available to them.

Using the flexibility in the system – the points based activation system

Flexibility and openness to doing things differently is key to doing this and thinking differently to support the long term unemployed and women.

The Points Based Activation System framework allows you to build responsive, empathetic and positive relationships with the individual, and tailor their activities to what they need.

We hope this is working better for people than the predecessor approach.

Under the previous employment program, jobactive, individuals were generally required to undertake up to 20 job searches per month.

Under PBAS, participants are generally required to complete 4 job searches and can also undertake a wide range of tasks and activities to meet a monthly points target.

This has been highly supported from our providers, as it limits the volume of poor-quality applications to employers.

We have done a lot of work engaging with you and your staff about the flexibility available within the PBAS and using it to its fullest extent in supporting your participants. And you’re using it.

  • In January 2023, 77% of participants in Workforce Australia Services had tailored requirements (this includes manual and automatic reductions to both the points target and/or job search requirement).
  • Looking at more recent data from July 2023, we are now seeing that around 96% of participants have tailored requirements.

It’s great to see such an improvement in these numbers and I thank you for working with your people to refine your use of this flexibility.

We must ensure we are providing our participants with the right sort of help and that the activities we require them to do are relevant, and will grow their confidence and competence in the job market.

Putting participants at the centre of services and placements

Our participants are entitled to expect this and so is the community.

Our system at its core rewards you for getting people into a job.

But that job needs to be appropriate.

And we must bear in mind their long-term interests and aspirations as well as the value of getting into immediate work, particularly those that have been in the caseload a long time.

When connecting participants with activities, or services, it goes without saying that all referrals should be appropriate and in the best interest of the participant.

Unless it is a mandatory requirement, participants should be given choice in the services, activities and providers they engage with.  

This is really critical when the services or activities are provided by your own organisation or one your organisation is related to. And even more so if there are extra fees for putting them in activities.

I absolutely understand that you might be able to support people on your caseload with in-house training or services from a related organisation.

For example, where your organisation delivers health and counselling services, this may be the best option to offer your participant with in-house support and wrap around servicing.

But referring groups of participants to generic in-house training that doesn’t align with their needs or preferences because you happen to offer it in house is not okay.

It fails the pub test, it does not meet community expectations and it does not meet my expectations.

I am sure you agree that the integrity of the system demands transparency around own and related organisation placements and referrals.

Such placements and referrals must stand up to scrutiny and must be driven entirely by the interests of the participant.

Every single referral you make should be appropriate and made in collaboration with the participant – to ensure it addresses their particular needs and moves them towards meaningful and sustainable employment.

The department is undertaking monitoring and a review of own organisation and related entity referrals to activities, support and jobs, so I encourage you to consider the extent to which your organisation is doing this and consider how you satisfy yourselves that it is always in the best interests of the participants.

We have recently come to you for information on your related entities – and will continue to request updates from you regularly.

The department will as always refine the system to ensure it’s delivering the best outcomes for the participants.

If we consider we need to make changes here, we will.

The landscape

There is a lot going on at the moment, Workforce Australia is just over a year old.

All of our work is occurring against the backdrop of work underway to ensure our labour market and employment services settings are fit for purpose for the future.

The Employment White Paper and final report of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Workforce Australia employment services will both be released in the coming months.

I want to assure you that the department is committed to working with you as the system evolves.

I encourage you all to engage in all consultation opportunities.

Recognising the current landscape and changing labour market and using flexible approaches is essential to helping the long term unemployed, particularly women.

You will hear more about these key themes today and I encourage you to think about how you can further localise and tailor your service to deliver robust and appropriate support for the caseload in each of your areas.

Thank you, I hope you enjoy the rest of the forum.

12 months or more on an income support payment in scope for employment services – Return

those unemployed for 12 months or more with no paid work, actively looking for work and available to start – Return

those unemployed for 24 months or more – Return

(Source: JSA Skills Priority List). – Return

(Source: Australian Energy Market Operator). – Return