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‘Young people have been disproportionately affected’: Taj Pabari

Taj Pabari is the CEO of the Australian School of Entrepreneurship (ASE), was named the Australian Young Innovator of the Year in 2014 and Young Australian of the Year for Queensland in 2017 – and he’s only 21. His company, ASE, is a social enterprise that helps develop entrepreneurial skills for anyone between the ages of 5 to 21 years. We discussed how the Government should approach upskilling young people, how entrepreneurship has changed under the pandemic and investment into early education.  

What should the Government do to help businesses?

The number one initiative would have to do with upskilling young people.

There are a lot of workers who have found themselves without a job because of COVID-19. As a result, a lot of workers are potentially not trained for the 21st century workforce and they’ll need a new set of skills. Mostly this means basic digital literacy. TAFE is doing a great job but significant investment into micro-credentialling will lead to more people securing a stable job.

In terms of small business, I’m a huge believer of the fact that small business can solve some of the world’s biggest problems. If every small business hired one more person, unemployment would be solved.

We have one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. If small businesses are a solution to a lot of our economic issues, then shouldn’t we be backing small businesses by reducing that tax rate?

The US has done a great job of that to incentivise small businesses to invest that capital back into hiring workers. The UK is at 19 per cent. Australia has the capacity to be an innovation nation and that’s got to start with cutting the corporate tax rate.

The countries that have done this well have got a significantly lower rate. We’re still at 27.5 per cent for small businesses. We’re expecting a huge level of unemployment and small businesses have taken a lot of the burden from COVID-19.

Over the next 15-20 years, lowering the corporate tax rate is something that Government should see is a practical and easy way to support small business.

How should we approach upskilling the Australian workforce?

A skill we’ve placed a huge emphasis on in the last 3-5 years is digital literacy. Even 10 years ago we didn’t have people with coding skills or basic digital literacy. Now every single young person has a sound understanding of how to use a computer.

A junior programmer would have been paid $100,000 because of supply and demand. We didn’t have enough coders. However as we invest more in digital literacy, we’ll have more supply and the salaries of those coders will go down.

From a basic supply and demand approach, we’ve got generations of kids thinking that they’ll be paid well to be computer programmers. They’ll do much better if instead we invest in training the soft skills that take a longer time to form.

Instead of training every child how to code, we need to think about how our young people can compete with people across the pond.

Australia should be competing in how to be innovative. These are skills that machines can’t replicate.

What are some of the biggest economic challenges facing Australia?

Young people have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic.

Young people are in tourism, in entertainment, in hospitality – roles that have been affected by COVID-19. And young people will be affected for generations to come.

When you combine the fact that young people are being trained for jobs that don’t exist right now and jobs are evaporating, young people don’t even have the capacity to start work right now.

Even spending your first few years working at McDonalds, you learn a heap of new skills. You learn about working in groups, conflict resolution and financial literacy. These are the skills young people learn from casual and part-time jobs, which are fundamental for when they grow up.

Young people are missing out on these skills right now. But we won’t see it until 10 years time when people realise we should have spent more on upskilling young people.

In terms of other areas, we’ve got unprecedented unemployment levels. The “snapback” that Federal Government has talked about has not happened. There’s hundreds of thousands of people who want a job and can’t get a job. To fix that we need to upskill our workforce.

We should be investing in education, whether that is through TAFE, external providers or universities.

How will the gig economy affect young people struggling to find casual and part-time work?

For young people in regional Australia, this is exciting. They can learn a skill online and sell that service online. That’s exciting. Young people in regional communities don’t have to move to a big city to contribute to the economy.

It allows people to maintain their lives in regional communities and allows regional communities to thrive and maintain talent. It also connects Australia – a decentralised economy – with the rest of the world. So one of the positive effects of the gig economy is on regional kids.

The downside is the lack of stable work and a stable income. However I believe the positives do outweigh the negatives. If they’ve got the communication and technical skills, they’ll be very successful in the gig economy. It gives them power to create their own job.

This then goes to self-employment. Self-employment is a practical and feasible career pathway for a lot of people. You could maybe make $30,000 or $40,000, which is practical for people who maybe have been made redundant and want to sell their skillsets online.

There’s obviously a lot of downsides but the upsides far outweigh them because it puts power back into the person. They’re self-motivated and have autonomy.

What about potential erosions to workers’ rights, especially young, inexperienced workers?

A lot of these regulations were formed before the gig economy. That’s where upskilling comes in. We’ve got to educate our young people on what is acceptable and what is not. To me, this is a core skill. This is a life skill.

Young people don’t get taught about what their rights are as a casual, part-time or contractor. They don’t get taught basic financial literacy and if we expect young people to be running their own microbusinesses, this is a core skill that we should be focusing on.

What are some examples of successful Government policies?

In Australia, we’ve got the NEIS program which gives participants aged 18 years or older the opportunity to start a business. They undertake a formal qualification and start their own business. This is an Australian funded program and it’s been incredibly successful. It puts the power back into people who are unemployed. It provides an opportunity to learn the technical skills and soft skills to start a business.

In terms of a preventative approach we always talk about the education system in Finland. It’s a very student-oriented system. It keeps up with the time and is always co-designed with industry, teachers and employers. When they realised that coding wasn’t a skill needed by everyone, they removed it and put a huge emphasis on communication and collaboration.

We’ve got the population to do what Finland has done. If we invest in education from a young age, we don’t need to intervene later when people face unemployment.

What should businesses be doing to manage disruptions caused by the pandemic?

Businesses should be putting an hour aside each week to just look at what corporate or government initiatives there are. There’s a lot of support out there – grants, funding opportunities or even just mentoring opportunities.

Each of the state governments have done an incredible job of bringing out a lot of government programs to keep small businesses alive. Whether it be a $10,000 grant or $20,000 grant, these are opportunities to try new things.

I sit on the Queensland Small Business Taskforce and when looking at the raw data, a lot of  regional businesses in traditional industries are not applying for government assistance. It’s a quick application and they’re eligible for them but they don’t believe these grants are for them.

Even if you don’t think you’re eligible, just keep researching what’s out there. More times than not there will be more opportunities for your business.

What can Australians do to help small businesses?

First, everyone should advocate for small business. Supermarket chains are doing well but I can’t imagine that the local grocer is getting the business that Coles is getting. Supporting the local grocer or restaurant is one of the easiest things we can do.

Second, be a mentor. Everyone needs a mentor. When I was 14, I had lots of business ideas and I always wanted to talk to people who had achieved a few more things than I had. I discovered LinkedIn, so I messaged people to ask for a video call and advice. I was really lucky and around 10 per cent of the time I was able to jump into a phone call.

Creating an ecosystem where any small business owner can reach out and be mentored is important.

Everyone has got something to share and something to teach. Creating a culture where people don’t feel scared to ask is the first step.

Someone who’s doing well could also offer to give advice. We work with a lot of entrepreneurs around the country and a lot of the regional ones are afraid to ask for help.

People are here to support and so I encourage people to reach out for help and for people to assist. To me, mentoring is massive. It’s not an easy time. But all you need to do is to ask.

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Ann Wen

Ann Wen

Ann is a journalist at Dynamic Business.

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