Instead of asking what is the future for coal in our region, we should be asking what does the future hold for our kids? And when we look honestly at how Hunter kids are doing at school, the future looks a little shabby.
Nothing beats success in education in determining success in later life. The first step is turning up. Yet Hunter kids' attendance at pre-school, especially Upper Hunter kids, is well below par.
Three of every 10 Hunter toddlers aren't enrolled in an early childhood program in the year before they start school. According to national standards, every four-year-old should receive at least 15 hours a week of formal education.
Not surprisingly, this deficiency in pre-schooling translates to poor schooling performance later on. By mid-teens, many Hunter kids find school unrewarding. Attendance rates in Hunter schools are sub-standard. A large slab of Hunter teenagers hate school, they fail school, they leave school, and they don't do post-school training.
Figures from the last census reveal 5200 Hunter kids aged 16 to 18 years disappear from schooling prematurely. The Newcastle urban area performs poorly compared with middle class areas of Sydney.
About 20 per cent of Newcastle teenagers fail to complete year 12 or undertake comprehensive training in the vocational education and training (VET) sector as an alternative. And the further up the valley you go, deep into coal mining districts, the more school and VET participation rates deteriorate.
Perversely, poor school and VET participation saves the NSW government a lot of money. It costs $20,000 annually in teaching and running costs for a teenager's place at school or in a VET course. No-shows at school and VET among 16 to 18 year olds in the Hunter save the NSW government $104 million each year.
Two recent reports show the folly of allowing these poor education outcomes to continue. One report by the NSW productivity commission says education outcomes will be the biggest driver of prosperity in the NSW economy in the coming decades. Yet the report presents arresting facts showing entrenched decline in standards of literacy, maths and science in NSW schools.
The other is the intergenerational report by NSW treasury. This report points the finger at the things NSW has to confront over coming decades: rising state debt, the cost of new infrastructure, the decline of traditional blue collar jobs, including coal mining jobs, and rising housing costs. There is no guarantee of the good life in this world for school leavers without skills.
A look at the Hunter's labour market reinforces the findings of these reports. Between 2016 and 2020 two sectors in the Hunter region did the heavy lifting in terms of jobs growth. The leading growth sector, with 16,800 new jobs, has been health care and social assistance. It's a bit of a misnomer really. Most jobs growth in this sector has been in carer positions funded by new government spending on aged care, disability care and child care.
As funding in each of these areas plateaus, jobs growth will stall.
The other growth sector has been construction, creating 10,000 new jobs in the Hunter over the past five years. Yet the construction sector is always a boom-bust story. It's not the sector you want to rely on as the core of a regional economy.
Meanwhile, in the traditional blue collar sectors - manufacturing, mining, transport, the utilities - jobs continue to disappear. This leaves the skilled-services sectors - the professions, public administration, education, health - as the sectors where good jobs will be found.
The implications for the Hunter region are straight forward. The decline in job numbers in the traditional industrial sectors, including mining, will continue. The decline needs to be managed to prolong the jobs of existing workers and minimise the impacts of redundancies.
Meanwhile, the next generation of workers, our kids, needs the best education available, from pre-school to post-school education and training. Get these things right and the Hunter economy can transition into a high-skilled, low-carbon, 21st century economy.
But business as usual - a tolerance of poor schooling outcomes, and pig-headed loyalty to all things coal - will leave both the Hunter economy and the next generation of Hunter families struggling in their quest for the good life.
Phillip O'Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University
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