While all Australians wait to hear the worst in next week’s budget, youngsters studying on the Border find it hard to cope as things are right now.
IN the quiet confines of a Wodonga TAFE computer lab, Heather Kazenwadel is diligently working towards her future.
Work is already a constant in her life.
When the full-time student isn’t attending her building design classes, you’ll likely find her at her part-time job to supplement the little she receives in Youth Allowance.
Heather, 19, moved to Wodonga from Wangaratta this year to make study easier, but because she lives within 90 minutes of her parents she receives only $30 a fortnight from Centrelink.
Joining the full-time workforce still seems a distant worry, but whether she stays put or moves away, Heather is vaguely aware that finding work mightn’t be easy.
“I think in this part of Victoria there’s some work available, but I come from Wangaratta and there’s no work there,” she said.
“I’m thinking of going into architecture, which will take me to Melbourne, and the prospect of not having a job there is tough.”
In Albury, Ben Maksymow, 24, would be happy working in pretty much anything — he’s been looking for permanent work in the region for several years now.
At the moment, he’s finishing a course to get his forklift licence, hoping it will give him an advantage over other applicants.
“Usually they want people with experience, but there’s not many non-experienced jobs out there,” he said.
The amount Ben receives on Newstart varies from fortnight to fortnight, depending on what his partner earns.
Is it enough for a young couple to live on?
“They (the federal government) seem to think so,” he said.
At first glance, Heather and Ben’s stories might seem polar opposites, but beneath the surface they’re more closely entwined than you’d think.
Both fall into the 15-24-year-old age bracket, those who could be most affected by possible changes to Youth Allowance and Newstart in Tuesday’s federal budget.
They also live in a part of the world with some of the highest youth unemployment rates in the country — and that’s on top of rising youth unemployment rate nationwide, now at 12.5 per cent.
Youth joblessness in the Riverina is 12.6 per cent and in the Murray, 13.4 per cent.
In Victoria’s Hume region, including Wodonga and Wangaratta, it jumps to 17.5 per cent.
Against this backdrop, the Commission of Audit has recommended forcing unemployed people between 22 and 24 to stay on Youth Allowance instead of the higher-paying Newstart.
That’s a maximum payment of about $414 a fortnight for single people living away from home, as opposed to $510.
School leavers could also find themselves having to wait six months after graduating before they can apply for Youth Allowance, and a new work-for-the-dole scheme is also expected.
"I like this town, it's just not big enough for continuing my career."
It’s all part of a push to encourage youth to “earn or learn”; though at the same time, getting an education could be more expensive due to other recommendations that students should pay a higher portion of their university fees, and start paying it back once they start earning minimum wage.
On a state level, many Victorian TAFEs are still recovering from funding cuts in recent years that have seen courses shrink and fees rise.
Brotherhood of St Laurence executive director Tony Nicholson has no doubt the changes will save the government money.
“But is it fair? I would say no,” he said.
“Will it reduce youth unemployment? I would say it’s unlikely.
“It seems to be premised by the feeling that this age group isn’t trying to find a job, which isn’t the case at all.”
In February The Brotherhood of St Laurence launched a campaign to highlight the growing unemployment issue.
Mr Nicholson said the greatest challenge wasn’t youth apathy but changes in the economy and industry.
“We’re shifting to service and knowledge-based industries, which means places in training are at a premium,” he said.
“There’s a lot of difficulty finding entry-level positions.”
He said young people should also be receiving better vocational advice, based on figures that show only 30 per cent of young people complete the skills-based training they enrol in.
“Often people don’t take up the right forms of training, either for the opportunities available or what’s right for them,” he said.
“There also needs to be more opportunities to undertake work experience, so when jobs are on offer they’re much better placed to take advantage of it.”
Work experience is something Tim Farrah, regional manager of the Australian Industry Group, knows is a problem.
“Young people are frustrated — how do you get experience if no-one gives you a go?” he said.
“But there’s only so many of those positions available.”
Mr Farrah works pro-actively working to expand businesses in skill-based industries, and agrees the biggest challenge to new jobs is the economy.
“Local employers are really keen to give young people a job, it’s never any question of their willingness to do so,” he said.
“But the business conditions in the country are making it difficult to expand and create new jobs.
“The local market is really tight, manufacturing is in decline... so we need to create conditions for businesses to have a go at creating jobs.
“If we’ve got a really good, vibrant growing industry, the jobs will just flow.”
On that basis, the government’s focus on winding down debt and saving money makes sense.
The question is, what do young people do while they’re waiting for those jobs to be created?
The North East’s state MPs seem to be singing from the “earn or learn” hymn sheet and are keen to see more young people stay in education or training.
Murray Valley MP Tim McCurdy pointed to Wangaratta’s automotive training centre as an example of “giving our youth the opportunity to get themselves educated.”
“The businesses out there will know there’s a pool of people ready to come in,” he said.
Benambra MP Bill Tilley agreed a “strong training background” was important, as well as attracting investment to the region.
Deputy Premier Peter Ryan said $5 million had been invested in “programs dedicated at enabling those students to remain at school longer than they may have chosen to do”.
Such prospects could be vital in the North East, where fewer than 60 per cent of 20-24 year-olds have finished year 12, and less than 20 per cent of 20-39 year-olds have a university degree.
Wodonga TAFE chief executive Michael O’Loughlin said the institute supported any initiative that encouraged people to stay in education.
He pointed to research indicating early school leavers were more likely to experience long periods of unemployment leading to long-term social and financial hardship.
He said 93 per cent of Wodonga TAFE students were in jobs within six months of graduation.
But Mr Nicholson expressed his disappointment at the lack of investment in TAFEs and training in this week’s state budget.
Further problems come from the hurdles rural students face in getting Youth Allowance.
Unless a young person can declare he or she is independent from parents by earning $21,000 in 18 months, they must go on the dependent rate (about $200 a week), rarely enough to live on in a metropolitan city.
“About 70 per cent of rural Victorians don’t go to university, so they’re already at a disadvantage,” Mr Nicholson said.
“It doesn’t make any sense to say to them ‘Go to university’, if they’re also going to charge more when they finish their degree — it’s a disincentive.”
At La Trobe University in Wodonga, William Keeton, 23, has a plan; after finishing his psychology degree he’ll work on his masters and eventually go into private practice wherever his work takes him.
“I like this town, it’s just not big enough for continuing my career,” he said.
“There are more prospects elsewhere, there’s just not much here.”
For Mr Nicholson, it points to a bigger, long-term issue.
“Especially in regional towns, if people drift away, what future do the towns have?”