‘It’s a whole generation we’re losing’: How a regional town tackled youth unemployment

In the town of Cessnock, in the NSW Hunter Valley, a generation of young people is caught in a cycle of unemployment.

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Youths are faced with the staggering challenge of landing a job without the relevant skills.

Until recently, Phoebe Morris was one of those people.

She told SBS World News it was a difficult experience because employers want young people with skills and those skills can take time, money and experience to acquire. 

“I grew up here, went to school. My mum – single mum – just lost a job last year, and we’ve been living off what savings she has,” she said.

“It’s really hard trying to find a job when they need experience and the qualifications – qualifications are costly and you can’t get a job to cover those costs. And I’m trying my hardest. I want a job. I want to support myself.”

It is a situation feeding a brand of hopelessness among a large swell of young, working-age people in the region.

Until recently, Phoebe Morris was one of hundreds in Cessnock struggling to find work.SBS

Cessnock’s mayor, Bob Pysent, says youth unemployment is detrimental to the social fabric of the community. 

“(It’s) devastating to young people to feel valueless to our society,” he said. “It causes social problems, but it also decreases the vibrancy in our community.

“Young people working, studying, they spend money, it’s stimulating to our local economy.”

The Economic Development Manager at Cessnock City Council, Jane Holdsworth, knows just how bad the situation is.

“The (number) of parents I’ve spoken to who just don’t know what’s happening with their children these days, they don’t get it. The kids don’t talk to them anymore. They’ve got no control,” she said. 

“It’s a whole generation we’re losing here, a whole generation who are committing suicide. They’re depressed. They don’t know what to do.”

In 2015, youth unemployment in the Hunter Valley reached 21 per cent, the highest rate in New South Wales and fourth highest in Australia.

Faced with the burgeoning pressure of a generation of young people unable to find full-time work, Cessnock City Council devised a plan to break young people into the workforce.

The Youth First Project, run by the council at the Hunter Valley Visitor Centre, provides hands-on training.SBS

The Youth First Project, run by the council at the Hunter Valley Visitor Centre, provides hands-on training to youths to help them gain the skills required to land a job.

Council employees have trained them in such areas as hospitality, wine-tasting and tourism – all relevant to the type of employment unique to the region.

In just over six months 14 people have been through the 12-week course. 

It’s turning things around for Phoebe Morris, one of four youths enrolled in the current program. 

She says, weeks into the course, she landed a job.

“Incredible. I’m so happy, over the moon,” she said.

“But without this program, I wouldn’t have got it, because it’s people like Jane and Melissa and the centre here who got me in, have got me trained, got me that experience and that knowledge and the skill set that I need to get out there and get that experience.”

Freya Campbell is a 22-year-old also taking part, and, although she is yet to find employment, she insists she is on track to get there.

“I’m still applying, and I’ve got so much more support,” she said. “People are actually wanting to help me and make sure that I do get a job, not just sign me off on a course and then that’s it sort of thing. I’ve got support through the whole process.

“I’m getting actual hands-on experience and getting solid references that are relevant. But I am surprising myself with what I’ve able to do that I didn’t think I would be able to do.”

Jane Holdsworth says the young trainees are thriving off the program.SBS

Ms Holdsworth says the young trainees are thriving off the program.

“You see them being empowered, you see them… their self-esteem, their self-confidence, comes out,” she said.

“They start learning to deal with people. And they all get a surprise. They think, ‘I never thought I’d like dealing with people,’ and they do.”

The Youth First Project has an 80 per cent success rate, and the hope is it can be developed into a model all local councils across Australia can use.

The national youth-unemployment rate sits at around 13 per cent, the figure persistently high since the global financial crisis.

At this stage, the Cessnock program can only cater to 20 students per year.

Ms Campbell would like to see it expanded so others in her position are given the same opportunities.

“This course that we’re doing is excellent, but there’s four of us at a time,” she said. “And it’s sort of like, ‘What about the rest of the people in the same situation as me?’ It’s really excellent for me and three others who are doing it with me, but what about everybody else?”

Ms Holdsworth is calling for state and federal government funding which would allow community-led programs like the Youth First Project to be rolled out across Australia.

“It’s proven that you can do it. And there are other councils out there, they’ve told me they’d love to do something like we’re doing here,” she said.

“But we need a bit of funding, and, if we can do that, if every council in Australia put (in) 20 young kids and got them a job at the end of the year, that’s over 14,000 to 15,000 created jobs every year.”

The Youth First project in Cessnock is producing positive results but there’s still much to be done to solve the town’s youth unemployment woes.

The Council estimates there are hundreds of young people still looking for work.

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