Political stunts won't solve unemployment

The EPMU-organised “Jobs Crisis” summit held yesterday is an ironic counterpoint to the “Jobs Summit” held by National soon after it came to power in 2008.

Both were primarily political exercises, the first designed to convince the voting public that a John Key-led government could get more people working; the second to convince them it has failed to do so.

Both will make little difference to the lives of those who are seeking meaningful paid employment. Despite all the rhetoric and lectern thumping, the number of jobs available is primarily a result of levels of economic activity – if our economy is pumping so is our employment market.

Globally, of course, economic activity is poor. The global financial crisis, whether it was caused by corporate greed, a cyclical correction or sunspot activity, has caused havoc around the world, havoc which New Zealand is clearly not immune to.

Which is not to say we should simply throw up our hands and declare “there is nothing we can do” in response to high unemployment. But it is just plain silly to say this is all a particular government's fault or people are out of work because corporates are evil. Nor is it acceptable to suggest those who don't work don't want to and prefer to pull a benefit and live the life of Reilly.

I have some personal experience of being on the dole. I was 19 years old and had completed a rather average diploma of journalism at what was then Wellington Polytechnic. My plan had been to carry on studying at Victoria University (political science and history). I enrolled and was halfway through my first semester when I discovered that the government-funded bursary I had received at polytechnic was being withdrawn ... I was half a mark off the criteria needed to pull in the $54 a week, which back in the day was enough to live on.

As I saw it at the time there were two options: continue my studies and look for part-time work to get me through or register as unemployed and hope I could eventually find an entry-level job in journalism. The dole paid $88 a week – luxury compared with the bursary. I did try to explain to the nice people at student services that I was happy to take less money from the government and keep studying but rules, I was told, were rules and my academic career came to an end.

Looking back there probably were other options but when you are young, inexperienced and a little lacking in confidence it is sometimes hard to see what they are.

As it was I spent six months pulling the benefit and picking up what work I could when it arose. It was a miserable time in my life. I felt unfocused, unappreciated and separated from what I saw as mainstream life.

But I got lucky on Stewart Dawson's corner one Friday afternoon.

I was sandwich boarding in a top hat and tails for a mate's dad's chemist shop further down Lambton Quay. I ran into a former classmate from journalism school who (after he'd taken the piss out of me for my attire) told me he was leaving his cub reporter job at Radio Windy and moving to Auckland.

I left the sandwich board in Plimmers Lane, and ran with top hat in hand to what was then the BP Roadmaster in Wakefield St, above which Radio Windy had its studios. I must have been the best-dressed walk-up job applicant news editor Chris Gollins had ever seen. I don't know whether it was my sartorial elegance or my breathless desperation but I got my mate's job and haven't looked back since.

As I said, I got lucky. It wasn't a government programme or a policy setting or a work transition programme but a chance encounter on a street corner that set me on my way. I was also lucky that I didn't have a family to support, had some qualifications and was motivated enough to take my chance.

Rather than use the currently unemployed as political footballs we need to create chances for them to take.

That will require much more than headline-grabbing summits.

Rob Muldoon was prime minister during my time on the dole. I didn't blame him for it and don't think it would have been of any help if I had.

Unemployment isn't a statistic or a political opportunity. It is a real problem we need to work harder to solve.

The Dominion Post