WORKWAYS, an employment services provider, says a person-centred approach is a better way to support unemployed locals into work, rather than the current mutual obligation system that punishes those who make a mistake.

Speaking to the Gippsland Times at Workways Sale office, chief executive Kieren Kearney added that the Wellington Shire has a unique labour market.

“It is similar to a lot of rural areas in that regional transport links aren’t always great. Accessing opportunities for employment can be sometimes limited, particularly if people don’t have a car or a licence, but also access to quality, reliable training,” Mr Kearney said.

“We have TAFE Gippsland and a few good RTOS (Registered Training Organisations) locally, but the breadth of services offered is very different in a regional location.”

In late November, the Select Committee on Workforce Australia Employment Services inquiry led by Bruce MP, Julian Hill, released its findings into Employment Services contracted by the federal government and how they support the long-term unemployed and young people.

“This first-principles review is the first of its kind since services were privatised by the Howard government nearly 25 years ago,” Mr Hill said.

“It’s harsh but true to say that Australia no longer has an effective, coherent national employment services system; we have an inefficient, outsourced and fragmented social security compliance management system that sometimes gets someone a job against all odds.

“The current system is inefficient, tying clients and providers up in red tape, driving away businesses and effectively making too many people less employable by requiring them to do silly courses, pointless activities or apply for jobs they simply cannot do.

“Full privatisation has failed.”

Mr Kearney welcomed the review and said Workways has participated in the inquiry and supports people who are looking to find work, whether they’re on Centrelink payments or not.

“As a not-for-profit Employment Services Provider, we welcome the review and most recommendations; in particular, we applaud the committee’s recommendations to commit to a person-centred service that is more effective in supporting unemployed Australians into work,” Mr Kearney said.

“We’re talking about people’s lives and livelihoods, so when a job seeker has a problem, it shouldn’t go into the black hole of online forms and call centre queues. We need to get back to basics and consider the individual needs and circumstances of the job seeker.”

Mr Kearney said that Wellington had many retail, healthcare and social assistance jobs.

“There are also some really unique opportunities, like the solar panel recycling facility just out of town,” he said.

“There is a growing economy in Gippsland and Wellington Shire in renewable energy. Some of it is a little way off, but there are some things happening and are going to be happening in the near future, which bodes well for the Wellington Shire.”

Workways clients span all age groups, and since COVID, Mr Kearney said there has been a change in the expectations and what people are looking for in employment.

Workers are looking for a flexible workplace as employers struggle to find staff. While there may be employment opportunities, Mr Kearney says that Workways sometimes sees a “mismatch” between people’s skills and the skills employers think they need to fill that role. To remedy this, Workways staff have been engaging with employers.

“We do look at what their needs are and try to provide advice and guidance and time and ways that they might be able to adapt roles to be able to attract more staff,” Mr Kearney said.

“Or we look at things like job sharing or part-time options…to make their roles more attractive for prospective employees.”

Mr Kearney took aim at mutual obligations, which are often “policed” by employment providers like Workways, saying it took time and energy away from meaningful and sustainable ways to help clients get into the workforce.

“Workways is supportive of the recommendation to return mutual obligation penalty enforcements to Services Australia (Centrelink) so that Workways can focus on our most important role, helping people obtain and retain employment,” he said.

“I think most providers recognise that being the police in the system doesn’t help to build positive relationships (with clients).”

Mr Kearney said that clients in regional areas attempting to meet their mutual obligations would often have to travel to attend their meetings, which could be very challenging for certain individuals depending on their location or financial situation. Attempts were made to make this easier, including sending staff to meet clients.

“But there are certain things and certain meetings that have to be held face-to-face, so in those instances, people need to attend offices,” Mr Kearney said.

“The current system … developed over the last 15 or so years, is designed around ensuring that people are meeting a mutual obligation, essentially, and I think it’s recognised through the report that the system is set up to catch people doing the wrong thing, which in our experience is a very small minority of people in the system.

“So the by-product of that is that there are people who aren’t doing the wrong thing and who are well-intentioned and trying their best but end up being punished.

“So they may miss an appointment by accident, or their phones out of credit, or they may actually have slept through an alarm. The natural thing to do if you’re in a job is to have that conversation with the employer. They wouldn’t just not pay; they wouldn’t stop paying you for a period.”

“Ultimately, as the review states, ‘the overwhelming majority of Australians want employment’, long-term unemployed Australians are not ‘dole bludgers’ and yet providers are forced to be ‘bad cop’ as a one-size fits all approach to all job seekers, which defeats the purpose of trying to support people in their employment journey.”

The committee made more than 75 recommendations supported by over 600 pages of analysis.

In a dissenting report, Coalition MP Aaron Violi said: “The Coalition firmly believes in maintaining a safety net while preventing a system that is vulnerable to exploitation and lacks adequate incentives for the long-term unemployed to seek permanent employment.”

“The Coalition has concerns about some of the key recommendations that have come out of this premature process that evidently seeks to water down mutual obligation requirements, (and) pass on key employment service functions from the private to the public sector, which end up increasing the size of the bureaucracy, inflating the cost to the taxpayer and simply risk creating more red tape,” he wrote in the report.

The new entity proposed, Employment Services Australia, would be within the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations. It would be a significant “digital-hybrid provider for jobseekers”.

It would establish regional hubs, where possible, co-located with existing services, undertake jobseeker assessment and referrals to services, and engage with industry and employers.

“I think the big risk in the system design they’ve discussed is where they would locate Employment Services Australia hubs,” Mr Kearney said.

“Is there one in every town? Is there one co-located with every Centrelink or Services Australia? There’s a lot of detail that’s yet to be worked through in that.”