Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States has politicians across the Western world scrambling to win back the “angry white male voter”.
In Australia, there are vows to put “Australians first” and revive the manufacturing sector.
But some economists and employment experts are warning against mythologising industries such as car making in favour of other growing sectors that are facing looming skills shortages, such as health and aged care.
Figures from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) show Australia’s jobs market is highly gender-segregated, and the situation has barely changed in the past 20 years.
Just one-in-ten nurses in Australia are male
The problems are so entrenched a Senate inquiry into gender segregation in the workplace was called late last year, and is expected to report around the end of March.
WGEA director Libby Lyons said around 80 per cent of employees in health care and social assistance are female, and the gender divide appears to be deepening.
“Nearly 90 per cent of graduates entering that industry are women,” Ms Lyons observed.
“So that would suggest to me that gender segregation is actually getting worse, that we are not encouraging young women to look to industries other health care and social assistance, and vice versa, we are not encouraging men to look at the more female-dominated industries – that are growth areas.”
Andrew Jamieson worked in human resources in the mining and manufacturing sectors before joining aged care provider Benetas in Melbourne, where he is now Learning and Organisational Development Manager.
Mr Jamieson said the number of workers in the sector must be tripled over the next 20 years to meet the demands of an ageing population, and that means making aged care more appealing to all workers, especially men.
“We need a more diverse workforce, and men play an important role in that, especially if we’re going to really meet the needs of our clients,” he said.
While he was happy to move into the aged care sector, his decision was met with some surprise.
“There’s a lot of deeply held assumptions about the roles of men and women, and that was my personal experience as well with how I saw my role in my family and work,” he said.
“There were people who were surprised that I was moving into an environment that had a lot of nurses and women in other roles, and they were wondering why I would be doing that.”
Will men join sectors with looming skills shortages, such as health and aged care? https://t.co/KPBDfxWK59
— RN Breakfast (@RNBreakfast) February 9, 2017
One well-known barrier to encouraging men into traditionally female jobs is concern about poor pay and conditions.
But over time, pay often rises in female dominated industries when more men start working in them, Ms Lyons said.
John Walsh, an early childhood educator at SDN Children’s Services in Sydney, said he has been offered plenty of opportunities to further develop his skills since he joined the industry two-and-a-half years ago, and his gender has not been an issue.
￼Mr Walsh is the only male educator at his child care centre, and said his colleagues appreciate the different points of view he brings to the team, as well as the opportunity to give the children a male role model.
He has not received much overtly negative feedback on his decision to pursue a career in childcare, but some of the comments clearly reflect assumptions about the kind of work a man should be doing.
“I didn’t feel there were any direct questions [about it], but there are times where people ask if I’ll become a primary school teacher or a high school teacher, or ‘do you want to own a centre?'” he said.
“I do have goals, but for the moment I just enjoy spending time with the children and working in the classroom and feel that I can learn a lot more by doing that.”
Male proportion of workforce falls to 53.6pc
Since the global financial crisis, the male proportion of the workforce has fallen from just under 55 per cent in 2008, to 53.6 per cent last year, as jobs in industries like manufacturing disappear.
Independent economist Saul Eslake has warned of the risks of mythologising manufacturing in public debate as being somehow more noble than other types of work.
Mr Eslake said it is much harder to encourage displaced workers from sectors in structural decline to move into the services sectors that are creating jobs, if they are seen as women’s work.
“Historically, manufacturing has been seen as providing long-term, stable jobs paying high wages to male bread winners, and the fact that our society has changed in many ways from that is unsettling for many people and I can understand that,” Mr Eslake said.
“But the idea that you can somehow recreate patterns of employment based on how they were in the 1950s or 1960s would be very difficult to accomplish in practice, and couldn’t be accomplished without considerable cost to the large majority of Australian consumers.”
Director of the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, Jim Stanford, said Australia’s deindustrialisation has been deeper and more rapid than in other comparable economies.
“Since 2008, manufacturing has lost about 200,000 jobs, and in fact as a share of total employment Australia’s manufacturing sector is now about the smallest of any industrialised country, even smaller than places like Luxembourg or Switzerland, which is surprising,” Mr Stanford said.
Dr Stanford said the latest figures show that since the financial crisis, the proportion of men working in health care, aged care and social assistance has gone up.
Don’t be fooled by the jobs data
But it is still very low, around 20 per cent.
Despite the current boom in services jobs, and predictions of future jobs growth, he said not enough jobs are being created in any industry to employ everyone who wants a job.
“In all of Australia last year there was only 90,000 new jobs created, all of them were part-time, and that falls far short of the growth in our working age population of about 300,000 a year,” he said.
“So there’s no lack of will among Australian workers who’ve been displaced from one job to do whatever they can to find a new job.”