REPORT BY THE STANDING COMMITTEE ON EDUCATION AND TRAINING – ADOLESCENT OVERLOAD
November 25, 2009
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10.59 am) — It is with great pleasure that I join the debate in relation to this report of the Standing Committee on Education and Training on adolescent overload. I have had the opportunity to read through the report over the past 48 hours and I commend it. Although I am not a member of the committee I am particularly interested in education issues as they affect regional areas. I commend the member for Swan, who has already spoken on the report, and the member for Cunningham for her very thoughtful and common-sense presentation of the issues. I understand the member for Braddon will make a contribution as well.
The foreword by the member for Cunningham is quite illustrative. Any members who are interested in the issue should have a look at the foreword and the recommendations in particular. I just want to quote from the foreword, where the member for Cunningham refers to the fact that:
There are considerable positive benefits for students who combine school and work. Those who find the right balance are not only rewarded with a range of social and economic benefits, but their chances of a successful transition into further education, training or work are significantly enhanced.
That particular paragraph really picks up the theme of the member’s contribution here today that overwhelmingly there are many positive aspects for students who have part-time and casual work but it is tough to find that balance.
It is almost impossible, I believe, for any government at state or federal level to make hard and fast rules in that regard, such as rules or regulations which would require students to work a maximum number of hours per week. It simply will not work. The students themselves would not cop that type of system. They do need that flexibility and some students, as I said, will cope better than others.
But there is one area that I am not sure the report covered in any detail. It relates to the issue of seasonal work undertaken by students. In my community, which has a very significant tourism industry, I believe we have an emerging problem with students between years, in that six- or eight-week break that they might get in their senior levels of schooling, where they pour a lot of hours into casual work in our community. It goes beyond casual work. Some of these students are doing 40- and 60-hour weeks at a time when having a break may be in their best interests.
Finding that balance is a really tough issue that I think the report addresses. I think it is a very significant social and economic issue and public policy has not necessarily kept up with the changes, as the member for Cunningham correctly identified. We have in Gippsland in particular, and in a lot of regional communities, a real challenge to keep our students at school. Finding a way to balance that opportunity for them to get some part-time work and get some independence but then maintain their studies is a critical issue for us in regional areas. The Gippsland region has one of the worst education retention rates in Victoria. Compared to a state and metropolitan rate in excess of 80 per cent in 2006, just 65 per cent of Gippsland students finished year 12.
These figures naturally translate into a lower participation rate for Gippsland students in university and higher education. I have spoken in the House on that topic many times in the past and I am sure I will again in the future, particularly as we refer to issues surrounding student income support as we go forward.
The report acknowledges the changing nature of the casual and part-time employment workforce in Australia. As the member for Cunningham referred to, some of us are a little bit older. I can refer to my very distant youth riding to work in Sale. I was actually a Woolworths checkout boy and a bag packer at the end of the line there, and the big promotion I got was to go to the fruit and veggie section for the second half of my term as a casual employee.
The member was right that employment in those days for students was based around Thursday nights, Friday nights and Saturday mornings, and that was the full extent of it. They were the only hours that were available anyway and I thought that was probably a reasonable balance. It was about 12 hours a week. As a student attending years 10, 11 and 12 you could maintain that workload and there were enormous benefits, I believe, for students in having that type of part-time work.
Now, with the longer operating hours that members have referred to, the longer shifts and the huge increase in the prevalence of fast food outlets, there are far more hours available to students. There is increasing demand, particularly in regional areas, where we have an older population, for some of these businesses to seek a younger market—and, let us be honest, the students are paid a lower rate than more mature workers and there are some economic benefits for the businesses themselves. I think they need to handle that issue with a great deal of responsibility going forward and I will refer to that a little bit later on. There is one other area. Of course, in rural and regional areas it is sometimes difficult for students to access part-time work as well, which I am sure some of the students have raised in their contributions to the inquiry.
Having said that, there are over 260,000 young Australians who are combining school and work at any given time. It is my personal view that part-time employment is incredibly important for young people. In fact, I have four young children. When they get to that age I will be encouraging them to get out there and get a part-time job because I think it develops some very healthy habits for young people. They develop a work ethic and learn new skills. I think one of the great things that a part-time job does is that it helps young people to develop their self-esteem and build pride in themselves and what they are able to achieve independently of their parents.
We have a whole generation of parents who, I hasten to say, have become the ‘helicopter’ generation, where we are hovering around our kids all the time and trying to protect them from every great unseen threat. I think the helicopter parents could fly off every now and then and let the kids get on with their part-time work, where they can develop a lot of great skills. I think they surprise us sometimes with what they are capable of doing.
There is a lot for us as parents to learn from watching our young people when they get into the situation where they have some independence. They are quite extraordinary in terms of what they can contribute in that work environment. But, again, I hasten to add that it is important that we find a balance for the students. Part-time work does give them independence and the opportunity to make a financial contribution, to ease the pressure on their families.
The member for Swan referred to that as an area of some concern. I agree that there is some concern there if it is seen as a financial necessity and families from low-socioeconomic backgrounds need the students to work to contribute to the household income. But, where it is a student who is actually just making a contribution, the students feel a great deal of pride in the fact that they are able to make that contribution and they do not have to go to mum and dad and ask for $10 or $20; they can reach into their own savings. It teaches them a great many skills that will hold them in good stead later in life. Financial literacy is an issue of significant concern in our community. People are finding that they are getting into trouble with credit cards and that type of thing. If our students have the opportunity to earn money at a younger age and learn to budget, save and use their money responsibly on the things that they choose to use it on, the financial literacy that develops is another important aspect of having a part-time job.
Another area that members have spoken about is the opportunity for this generation of students to get into an environment where they are part of a team, where they are working together, and they get to socialise with other workmates—often from other schools, not necessarily their immediate peer group. It gives them the opportunity to communicate and work as a team, rather than sending text messages all the time—which I think is an occupational hazard for many of our young people.
As I referred to earlier, I do understand this real need to make sure there is balance in this issue. The Adolescent overload? report clearly identifies the contribution from some of the parents and the students. In chapter 2 there is a quote from one of the submissions:
Anecdotally, parents tell us that it is of major concern to them that their children are working late at night some nights and long hours within those late nights… it is often stated that the young people in question must choose between these long hours and late nights or give up their jobs—there is reported to be little room for compromise.
We need to understand the competing interests here. The students are primarily at school for an education they are not to be seen as a product of the economy where they are just a working unit of cheap labour, if you like.
The balance does need to be found and a lot of understanding needs to be shown by our teachers as well as the parents and the small business sector. The importance of getting the balance right is a message that is continually highlighted through the report.
Members have also spoken about the protection for young workers who are most vulnerable at that time in their lives to exploitation. It is very difficult for a 15- or 16-year-old girl to stand up to the boss and say, ‘No, that’s not a safe procedure,’ or ‘That’s not the way I understand the work should be done’. I take up the member for Cunningham’s comments, that we do have a heightened level of responsibility to care for young people in the workplace and to make sure that their first experience is a positive one. We have both reflected on our time in supermarkets.
I found it overwhelmingly positive to have the opportunity to work with a bunch of young people. There were some more senior managers keeping us all in line, but we had a lot of fun in that work environment and the money was very beneficial to me and my family at the time. Mum and dad had pretty basic incomes and there were five kids, so it really helped take the burden off them. I think it was a very important stepping stone in my career in developing some responsibility.
Taking steps within this part-time and casual work environment to make sure that students are acquiring skills that will help them later in life is a very important aim, and the report does touch on that. It certainly adds to the student’s employability and sets them on the pathway to success. I have had the opportunity in the past to hire people and I often looked at what they did when they were 15- and 16-years old—did they have a part time job? It gave you a sense that they had a capacity to be self-motivated and could take responsibility. When you are interviewing people for work, even later in life, you do tend to check on what they did as 16-, 17- or 18-year-olds to make sure that they have the capacity to balance their lives and they actually know that there is a time for work, a time for study and a time for play. We have not really looked at this much in terms of public policy development, and I think this report is a good stepping stone. I encourage other members to have a look through it and refer to the recommendations.
I want to go specifically to a few of the recommendations. The first is recommendation 2, which looks at developing and implementing a national generic skills passport. These activities should encompass paid and unpaid work, including community and volunteer activities and work for a family business, along with sporting and recreational activities and other life experiences. I think employability skills and opportunities for some form of accreditation is one area that has a great deal of merit. I imagine it would be fairly difficult to come up with a national scheme in that regard, but it is giving young people recognition for the skills they are learning. A lot of opportunities in the workplace would involve doing a first aid course, for example. I know that a lot of young people in my electorate are involved in things like the surf lifesaving movement. They are developing skills as they go through, and adding to their future employability is a really positive initiative and I support that recommendation.
I referred earlier to recommendation 3, which says:
That the Australian Government, in consultation with stakeholders, develop a Code of Practice for employers, supervisors, and workplace mentors to outline their responsibilities in assisting students to document their acquired employability skills.
That touches on some of the issues of making sure that we really do have a heightened sense of responsibility when we have young people in our care in a workplace. Recommendation 12 refers to support for students at risk and recommends:
That the Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, through the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs, encourage evaluation and reporting on outcomes from local programs targeting disadvantaged students with a view to highlighting positive aspects of programs which could potentially be replicated.
This is a very important recommendation in the report. I do not see that all these responsibilities should fall on the government. I refer to my own community, where local community action encouraging and providing opportunities for young people has been very successful. Just last week in Traralgon the St Paul’s school parents group organised a local shopping trip. Instead of mothers paying $40 or $50 to go on a bus to Melbourne to go to the warehouses to buy their Christmas presents, they organised a local shopping trip. There were 150 mothers split into 12 groups of 12, with a few extras on the end. They went around to local shops that were part of the promotion and were giving them a discount to shop locally. This is a message that I promote regularly in my community.
I call it, ‘Putting locals first.’ Admittedly, it is parochial in the sense that I am encouraging local communities to support their own economy rather than always travelling off to the major metropolitan centres. How it works in this sense is that we have a school group, which I think spent about $45,000 on the night—it is the first time in my life that I have ever said to a woman, ‘Go out and spend your money.’ It is very easy to encourage the wives of other people to get their credit cards out, Mr Deputy Speaker. They went out and supported the local shops, and that necessarily leads to local jobs.
One of our great challenges in our regional communities is providing opportunities for young people. We have referred to the increased number of hours available through some of the chain stores and fast food outlets, but supporting small businesses is very important for us. I have made it my job, if you like, to ensure that we promote a message of putting locals first in the lead-up to Christmas for the job opportunities that creates for young people in our community. I think it is a great credit to the parents group of St Paul’s in Traralgon that they took the initiative themselves and undertook a fundraiser at the same time to support their school.
In the time that I do have left I would like to commend the report and the members of the standing committee for the work they have done on this very important issue. I encourage the ministers responsible to have a close look at the recommendations, in particular at the opportunities to support young people as they find the right balance between their academic careers and their working careers and set them on a pathway to succeed in life.