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Workforce exclusion is a complex and enduring problem in Australia, with some groups of job seekers more likely to be disadvantaged in the labour market than others. We identify a dominant unemployment narrative of ‘work first’ that surrounds unemployment interventions, and ignores the nature of disadvantage and its relationship to workforce exclusion, and reduces unemployment to a simple matter of labour market supply and demand. This approach privileges immediate economic productivity and exit from welfare payments over sustainable attachment to quality jobs.

We examine fourteen programs for disadvantaged job seekers under one national provider network. Data was gathered from eleven semi-structured telephone interviews and eight evaluation reports and analysed using thematic analysis supported by NVivo. Our findings challenge the dominant narrative and argue that both ends of the supply and demand equation need to be examined, stressing the importance of a partnership-orientated and capacity building focus on the unemployed person, and the significance of quality employment with long term support. We identify the importance of acknowledging job seekers’ strengths, aspirations and preferences, and of job seekers having agency to determine their own pathways with support from service providers.

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