The student workforce and COVID-19

According to ABS statistics, about 60 per cent of students in full-time tertiary education have jobs (this includes vocational and higher education). Their major occupations put them at elevated risk of catching infectious diseases and of losing hours or jobs due to the COVID-19 recession.

Exposure to disease

Because the census has detailed occupational information I am using it as my data source for jobs, even though it is now nearly four years old. The chart below shows the top 20 jobs for higher education students aged 30 or less who work part-time. The top 20 includes just over two-thirds of all employed students in this group.

As expected, student employment has a strong skew to occupations with large amounts of routine interaction with other people. Sales assistants are by far the largest single group. Waiters, bar attendants and baristas make up the next two largest groups. People in these occupations are all relatively likely to interact with someone with COVID-19, although if self-quarantine works not while that person is showing symptoms. job interaction with public

Students are usually employed on a casual basis. According to the ABS Characteristics of Employment survey, 78 per cent of working full-time students aged 17-30 years have employment contracts that do not include paid sick leave. They are paid a loading in lieu of sick leave. Some may put money aside in case of illness or for the normal ups-and-downs of casual work, but many are likely to be living from pay-to-pay. Losing hours and pay due to being sick could cause them problems.

However, many big employers have already decided to pay sick leave to casuals. This will, at least temporarily, ease the financial losses of being ill for employees of these firms. But students working for smaller firms with less capacity to pay people who are not working will lose income if they fall sick.

Exposure to recession 

While younger university students should be concerned about older relatives and members of the community,  young people are at low risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. But the nature of their work – by employment contract, occupation and industry – puts them at high risk of losing hours and jobs.

The chart below shows student employment by industry. Thirty per cent work in accommodation and food services or arts and recreation services, industries that will be crippled by bans on public gatherings, cuts to travel, and self-quarantining. Casual staff will be the first to go. A major concern here is that many firms in these industries will be bankrupted. If so, it will take many years to rebuild this major source of student employment.

Top student industries

Retail trade is also likely to be negatively affected, although supermarkets and other shops selling household essentials should be OK. They may even grow, as more people cook at home from ingredients bought in supermarkets instead of eating out.

Health care and social assistance, which employs about 10 per cent of working students, is likely to increase its jobs and hours as more sick people need medical assistance.

What are the back-ups when jobs go?

There are income support schemes for students – Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy. However, in recent years the number of students receiving them has dropped. Why this is happening is an under-examined topic.

As these benefits don’t pay very much, and require students to entangle their lives and finances with Centrelink, something best avoided if at all possible, perhaps some students took advantage of a reasonably strong labour market and worked instead. If jobs go, the social security system could partially compensate.

However for most students aged 21 or younger, 43 per cent of domestic students in 2018, there is a parental means tests for receiving Youth Allowance. Generally the amount students can receive starts falling with parental income above $54,677. Many students won’t be eligible or won’t get very much.

Although family income blocks social security benefits, it can also be a source of support. About two-thirds of employed students aged 17-30 years are classified as ‘dependent students’ in the 2019 Characteristics of Employment survey. But losing personal income would still hurt, and may harm others in the household who rely on the student’s contribution.

The situation of international students is of particular concern. They are not eligible for income support and their families are usually not in Australia. The global nature of the COVID-19 crisis means that families overseas may be in less of a position to help than normal.

Overall, then, while students are still working they are at a relatively high risk of being exposed to someone with COVID-19 but among the least likely to suffer lasting physical harm if they get the disease.  But whether or not students get sick, they are among the most likely in the community to suffer financial hardship.



2 thoughts on “The student workforce and COVID-19

  1. Thank you, Prof Norton, for your piece “The student workforce and COVID-19”, describing this important topic so clearly!

    There is one further aspect of major concern in the context of international students: It is widely suspected that there are a significant number of international students who rely on casual work not only to earn their living expenses, but also to cover their university tuition fees, in full or in part.

    For these students and their families, the combination of
    a) the need to cover living expenses and tuition fees,
    b) the ineligibility for income support schemes
    c) the reduced family support
    makes them particularly vulnerable to a reduction in casual employment opportunities. It also puts them in a particularly difficult situation should they need to self-isolate or become sick.

    How can the government and the universities best support our international students through this difficult situation? Surely, support is necessary!


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