What matters most? People and skillsBy Anthony Bergin*
Last year the Government released white papers on energy policy and Australia in the Asian Century.
This year a Prime Ministerial national security statement will be delivered, along with white papers on defence and cyberspace policy.
But isn’t it time we had a vision on human capital development for the country, something that’s directly linked to advancing our national security and economic well-being?
Human capital will determine Australia’s success in an increasingly competitive world economy.
It will be a key factor in determining our strategic weight in the Asian century, and the failure to produce that capital will undermine our national prosperity and security.
A strategy around human capital development would be about Australian’s learning, career paths, work and contribution to society.
It has the potential to be a big idea, one that crosses boundaries and inspires action.
Elements of a strategy receive attention from time to time.
We saw it recently in widespread concerns expressed about international findings that revealed that the reading, mathematics and science achievements of our school students were very disappointing.
Generally, Australian students’ performances in mathematics and science have stagnated over the past 16 years, and many Australian Year 4 students have substantial literacy problems.
International studies released last year found that Australia was significantly outperformed by 21 countries in Year 4 reading and significantly outperformed by 17 countries in mathematics and by 18 countries in science in Year 4.
The Australian Defence Force has even considered introducing a form of basic literacy testing due to reported difficulties at recruit and employment training due to military concerns on literacy standards, although this has been shelved due to funding concerns.
We have a long way to go to get to the levels of the highest performing countries in school education.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has set an ambitious goal for Australia: to be ranked as a top-five country in reading, mathematics and science by 2025.
This is a worthy target, but what isn’t recognised more generally is the role the whole-of-life support, training and role modelling, career development for short, can have in helping all Australians to improve their prospects.
We should tackle this head-on: a bit of support goes a long way to helping people choose training, get a job and change jobs.
It’s easy to see the benefits, with more people contributing to a stronger economy and fewer people disconnected and drawing on the public purse.
But it’s incredibly hard to achieve an effective strategy.
It involves negotiating with all states and agencies that have an interest in such a policy area as broad as developing the nation’s human capital.
It’s obvious that there is a cost to poor decision making: nearly one-fifth of Australian university students drop out in their first year, about half of those commencing an apprenticeship finish it, and about two-thirds of people report that they’re unsatisfied in their current jobs.
This challenge will not be met by any single strategy, but a world-class national career service will be essential to our success in the Asian century.
We have implemented professional standards for those offering career advice, have labour market information freely available on a national website, and a telephone helpline for the unemployed.
But it’s a piecemeal approach.
We should draw the threads together in a truly national effort to develop a lifelong, human capital strategy that would safeguard our security and prosperity.
* Anthony Bergin is Deputy Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.