Last Wednesday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released a publication that received little coverage but of which business leaders, recruiters and HR people around the country need to take notice. 

Why?  Well the Persons Not in the Labour Force publication shines a big bright spotlight on a huge undervalued and under-utilised talent pool in this country from a labour market perspective – women with children.

This annual publication is derived from a robust and representative sample of Australia’s working age population and is focused on those people not in the labour force – that is they are neither employed nor unemployed (available and actively looking for work).


The survey reveals that there are 639,500 females in Australia aged between 25 and 44 who are not in the labour force and whose primary activity is caring for children or home duties.  

This is a massive untapped talent pool especially when put in the context of there being 5.4 million women of all ages employed in total in Australia.  Note that the these figures do not even include women working just a few hours a week or who are underemployed (working less hours per week than they would prefer) as they are considered employed if they work one hour per week or more.  So the size of this under-utilised talent pool is substantial. 

Furthermore, of all Australians aged 25 to 44 who are not in the labour force and whose main activity is caring for children or home duties - just 8% are male.  It is overwhelmingly females who are not participating in the labour market due to child/home duties. 

The ABS’s survey also publishes data about a subset of those persons not in the labour force (NILF) known as ‘marginally attached’.  A person is classified as NILF but marginally attached if either they want to work but are not actively looking for work or if they want work and are actively looking but not available to start in the survey period. 

The two largest age groups of women with marginal attachment to the labour force are 35 to 44 years and 25 to 34 years.  The most commonly reported main activity for women with marginal attachment to the labour force are ‘home duties’ (32% of women compared to 13% of men) and ‘caring for children’ (27% of women compared with 3% of men). 

The ABS also examined people with a marginal attachment to the labour force who weren’t actively looking for work at the time of the survey, and asked about their return to work preferences.  Of the men and women in that category primarily due to caring for children who intend to return to work in the next twelve months, some 77% have a preference to return part-time, with the remainder aiming to return full-time.

So What?

Almost every organisation in Australia grapples with finding and keeping enough of the right people to fill a range of roles in their organisation.  While not the only group, women with parental responsibilities represent a large and valuable under-utilised talent pool – women with valuable experience, qualifications and contributions to make to employers. 

Why is this the case?  Well of course one obvious and valid reason for women with children to not be in the labour force is a conscious choice to be a primary carer and focus on their child. 

Another apparent contributor is that it is still only a minority of men who assume primary caring responsibility for their child and they predominantly continue to work full-time throughout their children’s early years. 

This then leaves women who make the choice, to seek and secure paid employment that provides flexibility and working conditions that are compatible with balancing their role as primary carer.  Anecdotally, such roles are not always readily offered, available or easy to land and obtaining appropriate childcare can be difficult and expensive. If a woman's partner doesn't seek or have flexibility in their work arrangements then parenting aspects such as childcare/school drop off and pick up and caring for the child when sick tend to fall to her, compounding the difficulty of making the work arrangements work for the family and employer.

Meanwhile employers bemoan a lack of available talent while this large under-utilised workforce is frustrated by a lack of suitable available paid employment opportunities. 

Now What?

Smart employers are developing and putting in place strategies to utilise this critical talent pool.  Old school mindsets, employment processes and work practices need to be reviewed and reworked to ensure that talented people can work more flexibly whether it be from home, flexible hours, part-time hours etc (this includes both women and men).

Anecdotal evidence from employers suggests that the return on investment is tangible, with lower turnover, higher engagement and high productivity from workers with flexible arrangements.  The best companies have the top talent working for them and will thrive.  Those who are missing key talent from entire pools of talent will fall behind. 

Men need to step up more.  Why, in this day and age, is it predominately women who are primary carers for children? If a male and female partner are each back in the workforce in some way when they have young children why is it more often than not the woman who has to find flexible and/or part-time work and not the man or both?  I keep hearing that the debate about affordability and accessibility of childcare is a woman’s issue, but it’s not, it’s a parents’ issue.  Furthermore, it is an employers' and societal issue as it impacts everyone. 

So what is your company doing to acquire and keep talent from under-utilised talent pools?  The days of employing people under a one size fits all working arrangement and solely on the employer's terms are over.  Organisations that are not proactively implementing ways to attract and retain this under-utilised talent group have no right to bemoan how tough it is to find "good people" these days. 

AuthorMichael Sleap