By Scott Burrows 
This short article discusses the way I have experienced studying a social policy issue such as unemployment outside of an academic setting. As is well known in professional and research consultancies, many social policy problems examined by private organisations are sometimes limited in scope, analysis and funding. Indeed, submitted tenders to funding bodies in a private organisation are delivered under relatively quick deadlines with the expectation of having fairly sophisticated literature reviews, methodologies as well as proposed timelines and expenditures. This article discusses studying youth unemployment outside of an academic setting by contextualising the ‘sociology of work’ context. It also considers important private sector dimensions that differ from research undertaken in an academic context.
In my current capacity, I am responsible for the management of a study entitled, “Youth Unemployment in the Illawarra: An Investigation into the Problems facing Young Job Seekers in our Region”. This project, funded by various local organisations, aims to understand the complexities of youth unemployment not only from existing research and data but through in-depth interviews with young people who are having difficulties getting by in their lives. The research project comes after many years of attempting to address one of the major social issues in the Illawarra region.
As most readers would be well aware, programs and policies regarding young people have been transformed in recent years through active labour market policies (ALMP). During the last decade, and more recently, policies and programs emphasising ‘work-first’ and ‘workfare’ formed part of helping young people obtain work who had experienced unemployment for long periods of time. Active labour market policies were considered to be an important part of developing better social cohesion and to lower chronically-high youth unemployment rates by deregulating Australia’s welfare economy (see Burrows 2007).
The Illawarra area has suffered very high youth unemployment rates for many years. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ December 2007 figures, the youth unemployment rate was 21.6%. The disproportionate concentration of high unemployment rates among young people aged 15-24 is in stark contrast to the overall unemployment rate across the Wollongong Statistical Region of 6.8% (ABS 2007).
The methodology employed in this study was a semi- structured discussion guide with young people (N=15) aged 15-24 from a variety of cultural, ethnic and social backgrounds. The discussion guide queried young people on their experiences of their family and social context, educational background, transition from school to post school options, and their perceptions and assumptions about the world of work. Many young people were participating in a program administrated by a service support provider under the Job Network who assisted them in regular case management meetings that addressed a number of individual needs such as counselling, job preparation and training and finding job.
The preliminary findings indicate concerns with a range of services for young people in the Illawarra. These include education, housing, transport, family issues and support, alcohol/drug and mental health issues, job preparation and motivation as well as job generation throughout the region. For an applied sociologist working in a private organisation these issues can be viewed from a number of different sociological frameworks. One framework that I have found useful for studying youth unemployment in the transition from university to a private organisation is citizenship.
The use of applying a sociological framework can be very helpful in understanding research findings in a private organisation. Citizenship is one perspective that I have used previously in a university context and have found useful in applying to a private organisational context in an issue such as youth unemployment. Citizenship forms part of the essential cohesion of social bonds that connect young people to education, housing, transport and other essential social needs. T.H Marshall, writing last century, noted that the important aspect of citizenship was the notion of social rights guaranteed by the welfare state (Marshall 1950).
Today we have very well developed policies in education, housing, transport and others but many young people sometimes suffer enormous barriers to citizenship and participation. Many of the young people interviewed as part of this study expressed the very high value of work not only for economic gain but for the fulfilment of personal and social needs. As Wyn and Woodman note that:
Indeed, many young people interviewed felt let down in their attempts to find work not only by the state but their own deficiencies and individual traits.
Typically, sociological frameworks in a private organisation tend to be limited in the sense of project scope and analysis. Usually, the use of theory can inform the initial direction of the research project but it can be applied in a fairly loose fashion without really testing its validity. Indeed, within literature reviews for a client research project, a brief mention of theoretical use is perhaps mentioned citing relevant studies before an explanation of its use. This is usually done in a fairly superficial fashion unless specifically required to go into further depth.
Alternatively, some research projects require quite sophisticated use of theories. For example, if governments or clients want to embark on new courses of action to try and address a particular problem they may require the successful stakeholder/s to develop a specific theoretical/ methodological model. Many projects with a sociological perspective pursued in a private organisation require the experience and expertise of the type of academic specific skills applied from a university context. This includes having an understanding of the way in which a particular theory can inform an appreciation of the problem or issue being investigated.
I have found that the transition from university to a private organisation challenging yet rewarding. The main difference I have found is the tighter deadlines in the private sector than in the academic world. The tighter deadlines are principally the result of a highly competitive sector where ‘money talks’. Indeed, some funding organisations sometimes require quite unrealistic timeframes and deadlines on consulting researchers (Bickman and Rog 1998, 10). This is particularly stark when it comes to preparing tenders or commissioned research. It is also relevant when preparing literature reviews and methodologies. Literature reviews for example, for a tender document, are likely (depending on the study) to be less rigorous but no less meticulous. This means that the skills brought over from an academic environment are very useful in citing important information while the skills learnt in an academic environment such as using citation indexes and search engines are indispensable.
I have also found that in terms of knowledge and professional practice, private organisations require researchers to have knowledge on many projects from a wide range of issues whereas academic organisations tend to have a more thorough in-depth knowledge in a smaller cohort of studies. This is not a criticism but rather a reflection of the way in which a private organisation operates.
This short article has discussed some personal reflections on the research process in the private sector for someone who is working as an applied sociologist. It has discussed a research project I am currently leading on youth unemployment and the application of a sociological framework from a university context to a private organisation. While this paper highlights some limitations of working in an applied sociological context, better development in resources and leadership is required to better improve the transition from an academic to a private organisation for someone who is trained in Sociology. The creation of an Applied Sociology Thematic Group could not be timelier.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2007) Labour Force Australia, Cat. No. 6291.0.55.001, Canberra: ABS.
Bickman, L. and D. J. Rog (1998) Handbook of Applied Social Research Methods. London: Sage Publications.
Burrows, S. (2007) ‘Citizenship, Labour and Unemployment in Australia: Understanding the Nature of a Deregulated Welfare Economy’, paper presented at the From Welfare to Social Investment Conference: Re-imagining Social Policy for the Life Course, February. Centre for Public Policy, University of Melbourne.
Marshall, T.H. (1950) Citizenship and Social Class, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Wyn, J. and Woodman, D. (2006) ‘Generation, Youth and Social Change’, Journal of Youth Studies 9(5):. 495-514.
Bio at the time of first publication (2008):
Scott Burrows is a Senior Social Researcher at IRIS Research. He previously worked in the NSW Department of Ageing, Disability and Homecare in casework and policy roles. He has also taught and worked in research and the universities of Wollongong, Sydney and NSW.
 This article was first published by Nexus in June 2008. Original Citation for this article: Burrows, S. (2008) Nexus June 20(2): 5-6.
Top: Illawarra, by Kaptain Kobold via Flickr. Adapted by Sociology at Work.