I’m enjoying writing my column for the Courier Mail. One of the things I am trying to do is sketch out ways in which very ordinary things and things that people don’t associate with economics have economic dimensions – or rather have dimensions which economic thinking can help with.
This week, how a very nice lady I knew might have been saved from either murder or suicide (at any event death) if we had a different approach to skill development. Tying it to the current skills shortage is a bit Procrustean I’ll admit, but I don’t really try to disguise the fact that I try to smuggle my own agenda, my own ideas into the topics of the day.
To read click here – or if you’ve stumbled upon this after the link has been removed by the paper, read on. . .
Flexibility key to skill shortages
Wednesday View with Nicholas Gruen
Here’s a story about that skills shortage our politicians keep telling us about.
My wife is a teacher. Many years ago she became friends with “Carolyn”, the mother of seven-year-old “Hamish” who had special needs our latest euphemism for the severely disabled.
Carolyn used to help out a lot at the school. She helped everyone but she was really there for Hamish.
Carolyn’s marriage was disintegrating and things had become nasty.
Having a law degree (for my sins), I ended up counselling her. Her lawyer let’s call him Chris was a cheerful fellow in a big bright yellow bow tie who had about as much empathy for his client as our immigration system has for asylum seekers.
Chris suggested she change the locks and lock her husband out of the family house. I was horrified not so much at the advice but at the complete lack of support in helping her carry out a dangerous act against a man of whom she was clearly frightened.
In her traumatised state, Carolyn was not thinking through how things might unfold she was just following instructions. I still remember saying: “Carolyn, if you do this, it has to be like a military operation, with support at hand if things turn nasty.”
Chris hadn’t bothered discussing this with her or referring her to someone who would. I suggested contacting a women’s refuge.
I don’t think she ever did. Carolyn died in circumstances sufficiently suspicious to lead to her husband’s trial for murder though not so suspicious that the jury found him guilty beyond reasonable doubt. If you were on the jury what would you have done? Sent Hamish’s remaining parent to jail while he grew up? Hamish is now doing well by all reports.
Why is this a story about skill shortages? Well, I reckon Chris the lawyer had a major skills shortage. He probably did “family law” at uni for all I know he specialised in it. But if thoughtfulness about people’s real needs can be taught at all, it wasn’t taught at law school when I did family law.
One could argue that Chris should be required to train in social work. But why not turn it round the other way? Family law is a pretty tightly confined subset of law. By all means graft social working skills on to lawyers for some reason my mind turns to that image of a human ear grafted on to the back of a mouse (or was it a rat?).
But, with the Federal Government’s “skills initiative” offering to publicly fund proposals for innovative ways to accelerate the acquisition of urgently needed skills, the time is right to be much more flexible about career pathways and credentials.
Why don’t we let social workers qualify to practise family law with say an 18-month diploma in family law and a year of “articles” in a family law practice?
First, we don’t want to experiment too much with the qualifications of professionals we have too strong a need to trust them. But we also allow professional practitioners to be gatekeeper and defender of standards in their own profession.
So there’s a good whiff of self-interest in the defence of standards.
Even if you were a lawyer who wouldn’t be threatened by easier entry into the profession, you might well think that all the hard work you did wouldn’t do others any harm.
But if you were running a commercial legal practice, in addition to this heightened conservatism you’d hardly welcome qualified social workers muscling into family law practices.
And if Chris’s case came before you as a case of “malpractice” you might be pretty sympathetic to Chris. You’d probably think that he was only doing his job as a lawyer. Carolyn should have seen a social worker.
How much could such approaches contribute to easing the skills shortage? It’s probably less use in more technical areas where many of the skills shortages lie. But some important skill shortages are in the right areas to benefit from more flexible approaches to credentialing.
Along with expansion of roles for para-legals, para-medics, para-educationalists “fast tracking” options enabling professional career changes could help in these areas. And there are skill shortages in all these areas.
It’s worth doing quite independently of how much it helps address skill shortages.
This is not just an economic question. It’s also about satisfaction people get from more flexible career paths that suit them better, and it’s about the quality of their work.
If we could combine more flexible credentialing with professional regulation that helped measure the quality of service as well as excluding poor performers, who knows what we could achieve?
If we’d done this 15 years ago, Carolyn a person of infinite solicitude for her vulnerable young son, if not, alas, for herself, might be alive, instead of lying in an unmarked grave.
I’m thinking of her now.