On paper, Sarah Pearson should not be worried about Australia’s rising youth unemployment rate. The 22-year-old has worked full time for the past four years at Melbourne’s Crown casino while completing a business degree at La Trobe University. She’s articulate, motivated and busy; yet she jumped at the chance to do a week’s work experience in HR with the Red Cross to plump up her already impressive CV.
“Once you finish uni, it’s ridiculously hard to get a job,” she says, describing a satirical post on the students’ internal website advertising a graduate job requiring five Olympic gold medals and 30 years’ experience. “Building up your resume is so important, you have to take on as much volunteer work and work experience as you can. It’s all about getting your foot in the door.”
She’s right. Australian universities are churning out graduates faster than the entry-level job pool is expanding, while technology is rapidly replacing many low-level jobs for school leavers. The statistics paint a sobering picture. While Australia’s overall unemployment rate was 6.3 per cent in July – the worst for 13 years – the rate for 15 to 24 year olds was more than double that, at 13.8 per cent.
Two of the main reasons, according to a 2014 AHRI Pulse youth unemployment survey, are a decrease in entry-level jobs, and employers emphasising the need for previous experience and developed skills. However, the survey, based on responses from 323 AHRI member organisations, had some encouraging findings. More than 90 per cent of respondents had a positive attitude to young workers; 85 per cent took steps to retain young workers, such as providing an internal career path and training; and two in three believed young workers were committed to their job.
The AHRI survey also highlighted the urgent need to tackle youth unemployment as Australia’s working population ages and retires. While some commentators argue that the key to getting more young people employed is stronger economic growth, that goal is proving elusive, with Australia’s growth rate floundering close to zero, according to figures released by the ABS in September.
In the May budget, the federal government announced a $212 million Youth Transition to Work program for young people who are disengaged from work and study. The private sector, too, is introducing innovative programs to give this important and growing group of workers a kick-start into employment and a fulfilling career.
Global HR company Adecco Group launched its ‘CEO for one month’ program four years ago in Norway and this year added 34 countries, including Australia, attracting 18,000 applicants worldwide. The program is part of its initiative to fight youth unemployment, which includes internships (more than 2000 since January) and ‘street day’, when Adecco’s HR consultants give advice to young people about preparing a CV, interview techniques and other job tips. Adecco spokeswoman Louise Nealon says that for ‘street day’ in April, 150 consultants at 50 locations spoke to more than 20,000 young people.
AHRI also launched a work experience competition this year to match HR students with employers based on a 50-word essay. AHRI membership manager Sarah Hemingway says most of the 24 winners spent a week working full time at one of 15 organisations around Australia, and the overwhelming response from employers and students has been positive.
Sarah Pearson’s week with the Red Cross was one of the AHRI placements. She was nervous about doing it, as a week’s work experience as a television journalist a couple of years earlier had so shocked her with the lack of job opportunities and low morale that she quit her journalism degree. This time, practical tasks such as writing up real job ads and the offer of volunteer work in Red Cross’ HR department next year has Pearson excited. “I can’t wait to finish my degree and get started,” she says.
In Sydney, Danielle Bracamonte spent a week at Qantas as part of AHRI’s work experience program. The 21 year old is doing a commerce degree at the University of Wollongong, majoring in HR and marketing, and has also done two one-semester internships as part of her course.
“I’ve heard so much about how hard it is to find a job – I’m so worried and I want to grab any opportunity I can get,” she says, adding that some friends are still unemployed 12 months after graduating. Although she’s worked part time at various franchised food outlets, she’d had no experience at a big company and found the one-week experience “awesome.” “It was a lot more relaxed than I thought,” she says, adding that she will definitely apply for a graduate position at Qantas when she finishes her degree next July.
It’s one thing to offer a student a week’s work experience or a month’s internship, but what about a permanent job? How do companies attract, train, motivate and retain younger members of the so-called millennial generation?
Fast food chain McDonald’s is Australia’s biggest employer of young people. Cathy Doyle, McDonald’s Australia chief people officer, says that 65 per cent of the chain’s staff of 102,000 is at school, university or doing an apprenticeship, and the vast majority of them are under 25. Recruitment is all done online and for every job there is usually about six applicants. “It’s mainly word of mouth from mates at school,” Doyle says. “We don’t do school roadshows anymore.”
Doyle emphasises that an entry-level job at McDonald’s is not about flipping burgers for three years while you finish school or uni. Once a new staff member has finished their probation, they sit down with the store manager to discuss their life goals, skills and career interests. “We have quite structured training and assessment,” Doyle says, adding that McDonald’s has its own internal university with nationally accredited certificates and a $40 million annual budget.
“That first decade of work is so critical,” Doyle says. “We teach them customer service, team work, dealing with a diversity of people, safety, all those things you wouldn’t learn at school. It’s not just ‘I’m on the register and that’s all I do’.”
One beneficiary of the McDonald’s training program is Hayley Taylor, 25. She started at the chain as a 14 year old, working her way up to assistant manager by age 23 with a certificate III in retail management. Now, she works full time as a customer service manager at a Brisbane health club, while finishing a business degree at Queensland University of Technology majoring in HR. She also volunteers one day a week as a recruitment assistant at Cancer Council Queensland.
Even with that background, Taylor is nervously eyeing her employment prospects when she finishes university mid next year. “I feel it will be quite difficult to get actual HR roles,” she says. “Uni only teaches you so much and what comes out of a textbook does not always translate to the real world. You have to be open to every single opportunity.”
If those young and unemployed with a college education are struggling to find jobs, the journey for disadvantaged youth is even more of an uphill climb. Mentoring and job placements are essential, says Roger Antochi, partnerships and events leader for Whitelion, a not-for-profit working with at-risk youth.
The group partners with businesses across Australia to provide young people with meaningful work experience and job training to help them stand on their own.
“We assess their interests, skill sets, training needs, capabilities regarding mental and physical health and wellbeing, and we facilitate training and find corporate partners to engage with youth,” Antochi says. “Once we’ve placed a young person, we support them and link them with a buddy onsite. We provide training for all mentors as well as support the employer and give them an understanding of where that youth is coming from.”
A holistic approach to youth employment is also front-of-mind for organisations such as Save the Children and Hospitality Education and Training (HEAT). One common denominator between these groups and others with a youth-employment focus is the emphasis on work as a means to escape cycles of multi-generational unemployment or recidivism.
Benefits for businesses of participating in youth employment programs extend beyond an extra set of hands. Antochi points to numerous success stories about participants who start in entry-level positions and work their way towards full-time employment. “At-risk youth just need to be given an opportunity to prove themselves and they will achieve a lot,” he says.
Employing young workers should be seen as an investment instead of a risk factor, says Antochi. “Companies that don’t engage youth miss out on opportunities to build a strong future for their business,” he says.
“Have a look at your business and bring in new people that are motivated and vibrant. It’s hard to put a price on someone, but giving someone the chance to prove themselves is priceless.”
Want to help your CV stand out from the crowd? AHRI’s work experience placement program partners with AHRI organisation members to provide HR students and recent graduates with real life experience. Click here to learn more and apply.
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the November 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Give us a job’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.