20 May, 2017

Women, work and poor pay

By Sally Thompson

At the recent Women in Adult and Vocational Education (WAVE) Conference, Professor Erica Smith posed the question: Do women have to be Rosie the Riveter to get access to training? Rosie the Riveter appeared in an iconic 1940’s propaganda poster, representing women who worked in US factories and shipyards, while the male workforce served in World War II. Rosie has since become a feminist icon, denoting women’s strength, independence and capacity to break down barriers.

Professor Smith’s question was in response to concerns about the impact of various government funding cuts to courses that are more popular with women and the relative safety of funding for courses that are generally populated with men. A good example is the Victorian VET system, in which analysis by the Victorian TAFE Association (VTA) revealed that the $290 million cuts to the 2012 Victorian TAFE budget disadvantaged women students in TAFE on average twice as much, and up to five times more, than it did males. The tables that were publicly released by VTA at the time, showed that the biggest cuts by far were to training for industries that were mainly staffed by women, namely Retail, Hospitality and Business Administration, while training in male dominated industries such as Engineering and Carpentry remained relatively untouched.

Another example cited by Professor Smith was the Commonwealth changes to employer subsidies for apprentices and trainees in 2011 and 2013, which disproportionately affected female dominated industries. The effects of these changes are still being felt through the apprenticeship and traineeship system.

Training or Employer Subsidy?

If we look at training policy in isolation, there would appear to be a clear cut and ongoing process of gender based discrimination in the way that resources are distributed. However, it is the point at which training policy intersects with employment policy and wages that things begin to become murky.

When Apprenticeships became “New Apprenticeships” in the early 90s, one of the aims was to expand the system beyond traditional trades to offer training to women and to existing workers. With the exception of hairdressing, apprenticeships up until that point had been confined to ‘boys in boots’, that is, new employees in trade industries that were heavily dominated by men. The early 90s reforms sought to provide new opportunities to women through the introduction of “traineeships” in traditionally female dominated industries.

There are three major areas of low paid, female dominated industries. The first group are the social and community services industries; aged care, child care, youth work and community development. The low wages in these industries reflect the broader disregard in societies underpinned by neo-liberal policies for the type of ‘caring’ work that has traditionally fallen to women. The next group is business and administration. These areas of study can play an important role in facilitating pathways for women from the entry level low wage admin (i.e. secretarial) roles that featured in the old economy, to the technology and communication rich roles of the emerging economy. Before the cuts in Victoria, they were enormously popular for older women returning to work after raising children. Finally, one of the last areas of growth in both jobs for women and traineeships was the services industries; retail and hospitality.

The introduction of traineeships was accompanied by new ‘User Choice’ funding arrangements for VET and it’s hard to separate the fate of a policy ostensibly designed to support working women, with its use as a privatisation “Trojan horse”. The ‘training provider of choice’ for the rapidly growing traineeship market was overwhelmingly the private sector, often the training arm of an already subsidised employer.

It was not long before concerns began to arise about the rapid growth and the poor quality of training involved in traineeships. Rather than ushering in new opportunities for women and other groups who had been disadvantaged in the labour market, commentators began to suspect that the new training regime had really become just an expensive and poorly targeted labour market program, effectively subsidising the employment of existing workers in low paid, low skilled jobs, most of whom just happened to be women.

The fact that some of the biggest financial beneficiaries of the new “equity initiative” were multi-national fast food and retail companies, added to the outrage. Rather than training women and other disadvantaged groups to pathway out of poverty, it appeared that traineeships were effectively farming them for scarce government training dollars.

McTraining: Would you like a pathway with that?

The Schofield reports in the late 1990’s on the Queensland, Tasmania and Victorian systems raised the alarm. The Queensland report found that 19% of trainees received no training and 20% in Victoria believed that they were not learning new skills. Schofield’s report criticised the lack of individual student supports, number of inappropriate sign ups, and poor assessment in traineeships. The era of “tick and flick” had arrived and tax payers were paying big bucks for it. Schofield went so far as to recommend in the Victorian report that noVictorian training funds should be applied to fully on the job training in traineeships.

Professor Barbara Pocock uses the term “shallow career ladders” to describe the lack of a pathway out of low paid work for many Australian women with or without VET qualifications. Her research into the low paid workforce showed that for many poor working women, qualifications provided no return on investment at all and even negative return on investment because low paid workers were undertaking training just to keep their current job, not for career progression or higher pay. Her research suggested that intensive government investment in literacy and numeracy training was needed to shift the entrenched disadvantage of these (mostly women) workers and that simply putting women through tick and flick VET qualifications was of no value.

Readjustment but not Clean Up

The Gillard government had a go at refocussing Apprenticeships by firstly removing employer subsidies for Certificate 2 traineeships in the May 2011 budget and later on for existing workers in “non-priority qualifications”. The “priority qualification” list was made up of skills shortage industries on the National Skills Needs List (almost all in male dominated trades) as well as the female dominated community services fields including aged care, child care, disability care and enrolled nursing. The big losers were the other two female dominated industry areas; business and administration and retail and hospitality.

The adjustments followed on from the work of an expert panel on Apprenticeships and Traineeships entitled Apprenticeships for the 21st Century. The panel suggested that the Apprenticeship system was getting very poor return on the sheer volume of funding being thrown in its direction; completion rates were low and the system lacked a focus on skill shortage areas. The panel suggested that Commonwealth employer subsidies should be based on fewer qualifications that answered yes to two basic questions: 1) does it address a skills shortage? and 2) does it provide the individual with “a valued career (that) can be traded in the marketplace between employers.” The panel’s list of occupations that should cease being financially supported included hospitality, clerical and administrative workers, sales workers, machinery operators and drivers, and labourers. The panel recognised that this would disproportionately remove training opportunities for women, but that “this can be mitigated by implementing strategies to assist females to enter non‐traditional apprenticeships and traineeships”.

Unsurprisingly, governments were quick off the mark to cut subsidies to “non-priority” areas. We still wait in hope for the “strategies to assist females to enter non-traditional apprenticeships and traineeships”.

Feminists should not mourn the loss of tick and flick traineeships in low pay, low pathway industries, just because those industries are employers of women. However, defunding training in these industry areas, also threw out with the bathwater, a range of high quality, TAFE based programs, with strong literacy, numeracy and general education that allowed women to return to the workforce after raising children, rebuild confidence and make connections.

If this tale had a happy ending, it would include mentoring and business incubation to support women into environments that are not just “non-traditional” but which are often openly hostile to women’s participation. It would end with not one more tax dollar spent propping up entry level jobs for multi-national corporations who yield massive profits and pay minimal tax. It would include significant investment in English language, literacy, numeracy and general vocational education for women who missed out on school and find themselves in low paid jobs with “shallow career ladders”. In short, if this story had a happy ending, it would be a TAFE story.

Lessons Learnt

It is becoming increasingly common for public policy that exploits and undermines disadvantaged groups to be badged in social justice terms for sale to the public. That’s why policy makers give names that denote fairness and equity (like “Skills for All” and “Training Guarantee”) to policies that result in the exact opposite. Sadly, the promise of new opportunities for women through the traineeship system appears to have fed a lot of public money into private hands, put a lot of women through low quality (or non-existent) training, had almost no impact at all on the gender segregation of the industries served by the VET system and done nothing to change the growing pay gap between men and women workers in Australia.

Women shouldn’t have to be Rosie the Riveter to gain access to training. But the training has to be real, it has to be broad, and it has to lead to something other than the same low paid, insecure and exploitative work that women have always been lumped with. And that means investment in TAFE!

We don’t all have to be Rosie the Riveter, but we do need to emulate her fighting spirit!

Sally Thompson is the AEU Federal Women’s Officer