Unemployment in Western Sydney

When we entered high school as young adults, most of us could safely predict how the next ten years of our life was going to go.

We knew we would finish the Higher School Certificate at age eighteen, maybe travel or work for a year before choosing a relatively achievable university degree to undergo.

Before we knew it, we would have graduated and be ready to enter the ‘real world’ at the ripe age of 22.

However this is not the case for many who grow up in Sydney’s Western suburbs, who face a future of unemployment and struggle to afford basic necessities.

Western Sydney is in the midst of a long-term unemployment crisis, with fifty per cent of Western Sydney’s potential workforce not engaged in effective work, a Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC) strategy for change paper says.

According to official Labour Force Region (LFR) data, Western Sydney’s unemployment rate is well above the national comparable rate, with the suburb of Fairfield owning the second-highest jobless rate in the country, at 11 per cent.

While on a five-day visit to the western suburbs last month, Prime Minister Julia Gillard supported the need for change and more jobs in the area.

During a key-note speech at the University of Western Sydney in Parramatta, the Prime Minister declared that “being from the West should never be viewed as second rate… so let’s go and get that work, seize that opportunity and create those jobs.”

Job facilitator and councillor for Job Services Australia (JSA), Steve Mullen, agrees that the level of unemployment in the west is alarmingly high, however stresses that the most affected areas are concentrated in ‘pockets.’

“The areas of high unemployment are patchy. Western Sydney has areas of advantage as well as many pockets of severe disadvantage,” Mullen said.

According to Mr Mullen, individuals who live within these pockets generally suffer from poor education, poor social inclusion and lack of workplace skills.

“It’s a vicious cycle because people within these pockets lack the skills and attributes necessary to gain fulfilling employment, but without a job they have no hope of moving out of the affected area,” he said.

Mr Mullen states that the availability of cheaper housing in the west encourages the emergence of these pockets and added “people who are already disadvantaged move to the area in search of government housing. Essentially, the problem has been moved west.”

Professor Phillip O’Neill, a professional researcher for the Urban Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney, believes that there are two overriding reasons for high unemployment within Western Sydney. The first is that the density of jobs in the area is lower than it should be.

“For every one hundred workers in Western Sydney there are only seventy-five jobs. Some of these jobs are taken by workers who live outside of the area, so Western Sydney workers really only have access to two thirds of those jobs,” O’Neill said.

This results in Western Sydney residents having to undertake long-distance commutes in order to access employment in other areas. The outcome is high transport expenses and an inability for the individual to work flexible hours and to meet employment needs, which can make the job more of a hindrance.

Mr O’Neill’s second reason for high unemployment in the area is that Western Sydney has lower rates of education qualification achievements.

He notes that 25 per cent of 25 to 34 year olds from the North Shore and Eastern Suburbs areas of Sydney have university degrees, or even more highly acclaimed educational achievements.

Comparatively, the figure from the Western suburbs of Sydney barely reaches 20 per cent. This figure decreases even further when looking specifically at males of the same age group, of which only 10 per cent have a university degree.

“Generally, most teenagers in the area don’t think about university because their parents didn’t go, and they often reproduce this behaviour,” he says.

Likewise, Mr O’Neill believes that without the right qualifications, unskilled and uneducated workers will be unable to move past low paying blue-collar jobs.

“People without educational qualifications are not going to be able to compete for jobs with higher educated individuals… especially not for the higher paying jobs in sectors such as finance, law or medicine,” he said.

Mr Mullen echoes this view, stating that where there is a lack of education there is a lack of employment opportunities.

“Not only does it limit what kind of job an individual can get, but it limits whether they can get any job at all,” Mullen said.

“It used to be that you could go into a job with no skill and be trained on the job. That is less available now. Employers are looking for people with recent work history and relevant skills.”

Unfortunately, the reality is that many people in Western Sydney do not fit this profile and can therefore remain unemployed for quite some time.

The life of the unemployed is strenuous and entails many consequences. According to Mr Mullen, there are many long-term and short-term effects of unemployment for the individual.

He states that short-term effects of unemployment can range from lacking possessions that assist them in every day life, such as cars, mobile phones and tools, to more serious outcomes.

“They often lack clothing and struggle to pay all kinds of bills and to afford food for their families,” Mr Mullen stated.

“In terms of the long-term effects , if an individual is unemployed for a long period of time they can become locked out of the job market and their skills can diminish even further without regular use.”

“The longer you are unemployed, the less employable you become.”

Similarly, Mr Mullen states that the health of the individual and their family can be affected by long-term joblessness, as people within this demographic are generally poorly educated about every day requisites.

“We see that people [and families] experiencing long-term unemployment eat a lot of take away food which often leads to obesity, they are under a lot of financial stress and therefore become depressed and have trouble raising and looking after their children, and they generally struggle to manage their money as well as their time,” Mullen explained.

“At stages like these, they are unable to move forward without very targeted and specific interventions.”

Agreeably, Mr O’Neill believes that the consequences of unemployment for the individual are well established.

“Work is critical in providing not only income, but an individual’s personal identity. Unemployment deprives an individual of much needed support and a sense of self,” Mr O’Neill explained.

“Self-confidence diminishes and in a sense stigmatizes a person, further diminishing their chances of future employment.”

According to Mr O’Neill, unemployment also has devastating effects on the Western community as a whole.

He revealed “the high level of unemployment combined with lower wage rates and lower Labour Force participation rates within Western Sydney creates a greatly diminished pool of consumers, who are not as financially stable as those of the North Shore and Eastern suburbs.

This means that a person’s wage when spent does not generate other work in sectors such as construction and retail within the community.”

In an article for The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), Deborah Belle says that having such high levels of unemployment within a single community can result in major issues for that community.

These can include abundances of inadequate and low-quality housing, underfunded schools, increased crime, and in some cases, increased abuse of drugs and alcohol.

Some of these issues are already visible in Western Sydney, so it is imperative that strategies be taken to increase the number of jobs within the area.

In 2008, Mr O’Neill, along with four other acclaimed researchers from the Urban Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney, prepared a Final Report detailing employment strategies for North West and West Central Sydney.

The main angle of the report was that Western Sydney has too much of a reliance on the manufacturing sector, despite it being Western Sydney’s biggest employment sector by far.

The report predicted that Western Sydney could not rely on the manufacturing sector to deliver jobs into the future, as manufacturing work is declining.

Mr O’Neill says this decline is firstly due to automation, in that we now need fewer workers to produce the same amount of output. Secondly, he says manufacturing output is being displaced by imports from places like China.

“Our warning in the report was that it is unrealistic for Western Sydney to rely upon the manufacturing sector to be the source of future jobs growth. Unfortunately by 2011 our prophecy had come true, as the number of manufacturing jobs had fallen from around 100,000 to 90,000,” he said.

“There are now fewer jobs in Western Sydney’s major employment sector than there were five years ago. The growing rate of the western population and workforce means that we now have to look to other sectors to drive employment growth.”

Urban Taskforce CEO, Chris Johnson, agrees, telling The Daily Telegraph that Western Sydney needs a different spread of jobs than just manufacturing.

“The dilemma [is] how to get service industry jobs to provide the right range of projects that need to occur,” Mr Johnson said.

More strategies to increase employment in the area were discussed at The Future of the Western Sydney Economy Conference on April 19, 2013.

Western Sydney Business Chamber head, David Borger, told The Daily Telegraph that the conference challenged businesses to meet the demands and this conference recognised them.

Mr O’Neill, who also wrote a paper about the employment targets discussed at the conference, states that the targets are achievable, but they are modest and seek to only maintain Western Sydney’s job ratio at its current level.

“The employment targets are by no means ambitious. The primary aim is to ensure that we keep Western Sydney no worse off than it is now,” said Mr O’Neill.

However, he says “there were several targets discussed at the conference that are considered urgent.”

The first is the continued building of long-distance infrastructure, which will provide Western Sydney residents with better access to higher paying jobs within the CBD.

“The demand from the conference is that the government be more proactive in implementing its own Major Regional Centers Policy,” he says.

“This means that there needs to be a much greater jobs concentration in the major cities of Parramatta, Penrith and Liverpool, as well as in the major sub-regional centers such as Blacktown, Campbelltown, Hurstville and Baulkham Hills.”

“Instead of relying upon heavy and expensive infrastructure to transport workers long-distances, the strategy says that jobs concentrations in those areas will provide high quality work in much more accessible locations for Western Sydney workers.”

The third target discussed at the conference is the jobs benefits and economic benefits that would result from the construction of a second Sydney airport at Badgerys Creek.

“While there are some issues to be resolved regarding noise and pollution, in general the conference thought that the economic benefits of the strategy should be welcomed.”

Despite these strategies being very modest, the results of them not being met could be devastating to the western community, Mr O’Neill says.

“With the amount of time people spend on the roads we are using up valuable petroleum resources and contributing to climate change and green house gas pollution, so there is a very real environmental threat.”

Mr O’Neil says “if they are not met, social and cultural depravations are at risk of being heightened.”

“When you have people on lower incomes where the level of inequality is rising along with the concentrations of people who are unemployed, social tension and unease within the community can arise.”

He also notes that riots have happened in the past as a result.

Similarly, Mr O’Neill says “if there are vast sectors of Sydney that have social problems, car dependency, high levels of unemployment and pollution, the overall “sexiness” of Sydney is diminished, which can then impinge on tourism.”

The risks are real but the targets are achievable, he says.

Australia suffers from extreme inequality in almost every facet. Just from taking the train from Pymble in Sydney’s North Shore to Blacktown in Sydney’s West, the differences in wealth and opportunities seen are astounding.

From the clothes people wear to the buildings where they live, Western Sydney has a clear disadvantage that, as both Mr Mullen and Mr O’Neill state, requires specific government strategies to be implemented in order to overcome it.


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