The broad range of restrictions imposed to control the spread of COVID-19 have caused widespread economic disruption in Australia and significantly impacted the labour market. Using data from the National Student Outcomes Survey, this report examines how domestic students who finished a VET qualification in 2019 fared in terms of their employment outcomes at the end of May 2020 amid the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Summary of key findings
Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been successful relative to comparable countries around the world. However, this success has still come at a cost, with the restrictions put in place to stop the spread of the virus causing widespread economic disruption and significantly impacting the labour market. At the end of May 2020 (the reference period for the 2020 National Student Outcomes Survey), the number of employed persons decreased by 5.4% from the same period in 2019 (ABS 2020). The number of unemployed increased by 30.9% and the labour force participation rate declined by 3.2 percentage points to 62.9%.
The proportion of vocational education and training (VET) students who completed a qualification in 2019 and were employed at the end of May 2020 was 71.6%, this represented a decrease of 5.0 percentage points from the corresponding period in the previous year. The decrease in the proportion of males employed full time was particularly large (-9.1 percentage points), with the decline in full-time employment smaller for females (-5.6% percentage points). The decline in the proportion of qualification completers employed after training from 2019 to 2020 did not translate into a similar increase in the proportion of unemployed, this is due to an increase in the proportion who were not participating in the labour force which was larger for females (4.6 percentage points) than for males (3.4 percentage points).
Despite the introduction of the federal government’s JobKeeper payment scheme, there were a proportion of VET students who completed a qualification during 2019, and who had a job after finishing their training, which they lost by the end of May 2020 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Younger cohorts had higher proportions that lost their job due to COVID-19 than their older counterparts. Females aged between 20-24 years old were particularly hard hit, with 8.3% of those who completed their qualification during 2019, not in employment at the end of May 2020, having lost their job due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
VET qualification completers from 2019 who had a job at the end of May 2020 experienced considerable disruption to their employment circumstances. Of those employed, 6.7% were temporarily stood down due to COVID-19, and 34.4% had their work hours reduced since the start of the pandemic. These impacts on employment circumstances varied widely by industry. Qualification completers employed in industries more exposed to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions such as Arts and Recreation Services; and Accommodation and Food Services, had the highest proportions of those temporarily stood down or working reduced hours. Qualification completers employed in industries such as Financial and Insurance Services; and Mining, fared much better with far lower proportions reporting they were temporarily stood down or working reduced hours.
In terms of age and gender, young females aged 18-19 and 20-24 years had the highest proportions of those employed and temporarily stood down at 11.2% and 10.5% respectively. These cohorts also had the highest proportions that experienced a decrease in hours worked since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia. A potential contributor for the greater impact on employment circumstances for female qualification completers (particularly younger ones) than males is that they are overrepresented in industries hardest hit by the restrictions implemented to stop the spread of the virus.
Looking around Australia, all jurisdictions saw a decrease in the proportion of qualification completers employed full-time at the end of May 2020 compared with May 2019, with the largest declines in the Northern Territory, South Australia, Tasmania, and Queensland. Over the same period, all jurisdictions except the Australian Capital Territory saw a decrease in the proportion of qualification completers participating in the labour market, with the largest decline in Victoria. Of qualification completers that were employed at the end of May 2020, Victoria had the highest proportion temporarily stood down due to COVID-19 (8.2%) and that had their working hours reduced since the start of the pandemic (41.1%). There were also regional differences, with higher proportions of qualification completers located in major cities reporting they were temporarily stood down or working less hours than those in non-metropolitan areas.
Unsurprisingly, qualification completers whose employment circumstances were most negatively affected were from fields of education that include nationally recognised training for industries heavily impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. Qualification completers from the broad fields of education of Food, Hospitality and Personal Services; and Creative Arts, had the highest proportions of those employed at the end of May 2020 who were temporarily stood down due to COVID-19 at 16.0% and 14.8% respectively. Qualification completers from these fields of education also had the highest proportion of students who experienced a decrease in working hours since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the findings of this report paint a fairly bleak picture in terms of employment outcomes for the VET qualification completers of 2019 compared with previous years, the information presented is for a snapshot in time at the end of May 2020, when national restrictions imposed to control the initial wave of COVID-19 infections were only just beginning to be eased.
Seasonally adjusted Labour Force estimates from the ABS (2021) for February 2021, revealed the number employed hit 13 million, which is only slightly lower than the same period in 2020 before any COVID-19 restrictions were implemented (ABS 2020). This is good news for qualification completers from 2019 who lost their job or had their employment circumstances negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and for those that completed a VET qualification during 2020. Although the withdrawal of the Federal government’s JobKeeper program at the end of March 2021, when eligible businesses will no longer receive wage support for employees impacted by COVID-19, may have a negative effect on the labour market over the coming months.
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