Jobseeking parents need support, not threat of punishment

Job readiness is a complex concept. It’s not just a case of having your resume done and identifying your skillset that can then be applied to a job.

It’s more than undergoing activities that are related to skill building, study or accruing referees. There needs to be a psychological shift, a conscious preparedness that drives you behind the need of an income.

If you aren’t truly job ready, in every sense, no amount of reporting to Centrelink, blind job applications or seemingly disconnected “activities” are going to get you over the line.

In fact, it can cause more harm than good. One of the hardest things parents returning to work face is addressing the “gap” in their work history. I have worked with many parents in this situation and they often experience a drop in their confidence, lack of career chronology, seemingly minimal current employability skills, no recent referees and a need for flexible work hours. It can be an overwhelming experience for a parent who has spent several years at home, taking care of their children, to suddenly have to “adult” again. I know. I’ve been there, too. 

ParentsNext is a government program defined by the Department of Jobs and Small Business as a program that “helps eligible parents to plan and prepare for employment.” 

In theory, it’s a fantastic idea as it is aimed at supporting parents receiving the parenting payment through the transition from being a stay-at-home parent to being back in paid employment.

The program is advertised as helping participants identify education and employment goals, develop a pathway to achieve their goals, combine preparing for work with parenting responsibilities and to provide access to activities and services in the local community. However, there is a dark side. ParentsNext is a part of the Targeted Compliance Framework (TCF) and as such, failure to report identified compulsory activities to Centrelink results in payment suspension and, in some cases, sanctions. The Guardian reported that parents with babies as young as six months can be required to report their attendance at compulsory activities, and that these activities aren’t necessarily work-related, but can instead include attending a story time session at a library or attending playgroup.

[Parents] often experience a drop in their confidence, lack of career chronology, seemingly minimal current employability skills, no recent referees and a need for flexible work hours.

The Australian Council of Social Service and Jobs Australia have criticised the application of the TCF to the ParentsNext program and a Senate inquiry is under way. 

ACOSS outlined four key weaknesses as part of its submission, raising concerns regarding the lack of clear program purpose, the perpetuation of income support payment recipient stereotypes as a result of confusing all parenting payment recipients with families and children “at risk”,  and the lack of evidence to support parents with children as young as six months needing to prepare for employment. ACOSS also stated that the punitive element to the TCF approach significantly impacts parents’ mental health and anxiety, often at a time of stress and familial upheaval.

Government websites are rife with anecdotal marketing snippets claiming how wonderful the program has been. And while I am sure it has been helpful for some of the participants, we are also seeing significant anecdotal evidence to the contrary – including parents being left without food over weekends while they wait for payments to be reinstated due to erroneous suspensions. There is so much potential in this program, but it doesn’t need to go hand in hand with the constant threat of punitive action. The program isn’t a one-size-fits-all quick fix and should not be compulsory.

We need to help parents prepare psychologically and emotionally for work, not just in terms of skill development and time management. After all, when you break down what being a full-time parent actually entails, you begin to understand the sheer volume of skills that parents have likely added to their toolkit. And yet, these skills are undervalued because we are taught to attribute worth to tasks and skills based on the money those activities yield.

As hirers, we need to recognise this fact more and value how parenting enhances our employability. As jobseeking parents, we need to be bold and own our parenting skills, for they are numerous and worthy.  

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers writer and coach at impressability.com.au