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Have you ever thought that the world is or is not a better place compared to say ten or more years ago? Has there been progress in the area of employment, education or training? Whatever view you might have, there will be lively arguments both for and against.

As if to settle these disputes, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) publishes Measures of Australia's Progress (Catalogue Number 1370.0). This describes developments in Australia over the past ten years. The major dimensions of progress sampled by the ABS relate to: individuals, the economy and resources, the environment and living together. It is an unenviable task to measure progress and, of course, the selection is subjective. As a bureau of statistics there is an obvious tendency to focus on factors that are more amenable to measurement, but these descriptions still represent some important areas of our lives.

The major dimensions sampled under the heading of individuals that specifically relate to career development include the fields of education and training, and work. In this editorial I consider not only our progress but also our lack of development in these fields. Although the ABS states that the measures of progress are not a scorecard for government policy, they may well be a scorecard for career development services in Australia. (Unless otherwise indicated, I am quoting throughout from the Measures of Australia's Progress 2006, Catalogue Number 1370.0.)


The emphasis in progress within education and training has been on the increase in the proportion of people with post-school qualifications or training. While the proportion of people aged 25-64 with a higher education qualification has increased from 14 per cent in 1995 to 23 per cent in 2005, the level of vocational qualifications (advanced diploma, diploma and certificates I to IV) has remained fairly constant at around 34 per cent.

This overemphasis on university qualifications is not justifiable from a national career development perspective. It says a great deal about the relative value that we ascribe to various sectors of post-school education. It is also consistent with the high levels of current skill shortages in Australia and is evident in the decline in apprentices (see figure below). There is no valid justification for apprenticeship numbers to have declined from 1983-2004. It is a recipe for disaster.


Increased educational attainment is not necessarily an indicator of growth in human capital or the national sum of knowledge and skills held by Australians. It may well be an indicator of increased credentialism. The increase in the proportion of persons with tertiary education does reflect broadened opportunities, but it might also be an indicator of expanded aspirations or decreased quality.

Along the same lines, the proportion of young people completing the highest level of secondary schooling is now around 75 per cent. This has increased steadily from the 1980s and generally has levelled off (if not declined slightly) in recent years. However, more schooling is a sign of progress if, and only if, it results in more education. If more schooling is really important, then are we proud of the fact that one in four students did not complete secondary schooling or were not provided with an equivalent to completing secondary school? (I know that some went into trades or other vocational training, but the figure above shows it was not as many as before.) What does this say about our society, about the relevance of our curriculum and about our education systems?

These issues are faced on a daily basis by my colleagues working within education systems. Even if we could justify the current distribution of post-school qualifications or the secondary school retention rates, we need to further justify the substantial disparity of some ten per cent between males and females in the retention rates to Year 12. Moreover, the increased educational participation of persons aged 15-64 over the last ten years is due to increased female participation. Are career development professionals proud of the fact that there has been no increase in male educational participation at school or beyond school? It is not enough to ascribe this disparity to affirmative action, gender differences, sociocultural influences, educational factors or to say that it is someone else's problem. After all, as the Canadian communications theorist Marshall McLuhan noted, 'There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew'.

The level of participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is also of concern, especially from a human rights perspective. The ABS indicated (p. 43), 'the levels of participation in education and training among Indigenous Australians and the levels of attainment remained well below those of non-Indigenous Australians'. This is an understatement.

The Year 12 retention rate for Indigenous students in 2005 was 40 per cent compared to 75 per cent for Australia as a whole. The proportion of Indigenous adults with a post-school qualification was 32 per cent compared with 58 per cent for all Australians (percentages rounded). In determining whether there has been educational progress in Australia, the reader may wish to consider these educational exceptions and our collective responsibility for them.


The headline ABS indicator for measuring progress in the area of work is unemployment. Fortunately, this fell from 8.2 per cent in 995 to 5.1 per cent in 2005. Naturally, unemployment is a response to the economy and is not affected in its entirety by career development services in Australia.

However, job security may be considered a corollary of unemployment. In the 12 months to December 2004, some 270 700 people were retrenched or made redundant in Australia. This is a lot of people. Furthermore, 1.5 per cent of employed people in 2005 considered that they would need to leave their job for involuntary or economic reasons (p. 50).

This lack of security represents a substantial breakdown in the social contract or social settlement that permeated Australian life and work for much of the last century. The sense of security and the safety net that once characterised employment has disappeared and few career development professionals in Australia have spoken out about these phenomena, other than in a general way. I have a sense that this is just accepted by careers practitioners.

The nature and structure of employment has changed and it is not clear that these changes represent social progress. The increase in casual employment is well known. But less well known is the increase in casual employment among males from 13 per cent in 1990 to 25 per cent in 2004 (p. 50). This is fine if all you want is a casual job. In addition, the proportion of people working part-time increased to 29 per cent in 2005--and is now almost one in three Australians. Now remember that if you are working part-time (even one hour a week) you will be included in those who are employed.

Notwithstanding redundancy, job insecurity and part-time or casual work, we have an intensification in work among those who are still employed. Almost one-in-five people worked 50 hours or more a week and just over one-in-ten people worked 60 hours or more a week in 2005 (p. 51). This is fine if all we want to do in life is work.

There is insufficient space to deal with other aspects or measures of the lack of progress, but it would be remiss of me to conclude without commenting that only 64 per cent of Indigenous adults aged 18-64 were in the labour force compared with 79 per cent of the non-Indigenous population. The unemployment rate in 2002 for Indigenous adults was 20 per cent--more than three times the rate for non-Indigenous adults. No matter what the causes or reasons, we have a substantial task to undertake in this field.

Although some of the statistics produced seem to be positive, I am not certain that there has been real progress in Australian education and training, and work. There are some stark exceptions to the headlines. It is doubtful that the level of progress across the population is uniform and there are large pockets of inequality and disadvantage spread across modern Australia. Males, minorities, regional cohorts, specific occupations, age sectors and Indigenous groups have not seen much progress.

We must not be beguiled by change or by increases or decreases in some headline percentages, but we need to look at the overall picture and especially the exceptions to the rule. If we had used a different set of indicators, then we might well have a different set of problems and a different picture of national progress. Moreover, the percentages that are produced are group statistics and might hide more than they reveal.

Real progress is likely to be more qualitative than quantitative and individually felt. As career development professionals, we have an ongoing social responsibility to improve education and training, and work for all Australians. This was the foundation of our discipline. This is our raison d'etre.

In this issue, the reader will notice a major section devoted to the Third International Symposium on Career Development and Public Policy that was held in Sydney during April this year. The AJCD is privileged to be able to report these events and to make them available to a wide audience. This would not have been possible without the initiative of Col McCowan OAM and the financial support of the Department of Education, Science and Training. Their cooperation and assistance is gratefully acknowledged.

James A. Athanasou

University of Technology, Sydney
COPYRIGHT 2006 Australian Council for Educational Research
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Author:Athanasou, James A.
Publication:Australian Journal of Career Development
Date:Mar 22, 2006
Next Article:At my desk.

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