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Addressing workforce pain points

The Joint Standing Committee for the NDIS has proposed workforce solutions around thin markets, lived experience and current workforce levels.

By Rob Woolley

Updated 15 Apr 20241 Mar 2022

The ability of providers to attract a large and stable disability workforce is critical to the success of the entire Scheme and is also one of the sector’s most consistent pain points. The Joint Standing Committee on the NDIS agrees that this issue needs urgent attention – hooray!. Recently, it released its Final Report on the disability sector workforce.

A quick catchup for everyone with their brain-space devoted to other things: the Joint Standing Committee into the NDIS is made up of a group of MPs and Senators brought together to investigate a specific issue, collect evidence, and publish reports with recommendations. 

This is the second report the Committee has produced – the first (interim) report was released in December 2020 and is available here. Although some of the same themes remain, much has happened since then, including the release of the NDIS National Workforce Plan 2021-2025, to which the Joint Standing Committee frequently refers.

Luckily for everyone reading this, I’ve yet to see a Joint Standing Committee Report that I don’t find fascinating (don’t @ me). Below, we’ve summarised the findings from the Committee’s Final Report, so you don’t have to read through 146 pages.

Current workforce level

For years, we have been hearing about the workforce increase required to meet NDIS demand. The report quotes Department of Social Services (DSS) data suggesting that approximately 83,000 more full-time equivalent workers will be required to meet demand by June 2024. The size of the current workforce is almost 270,000, divided as follows:

  • 178,000 home-based support workers
  • 63,000 community-based support workers
  • 19,900 allied health professionals
  • 8,000 workers in other occupations.

To meet the demand in just the next couple of years, an increase of 31% full-time equivalents is required, even as the sector faces a period of unprecedented turbulence and challenge. Broken down into different roles, that 31% translates to:

  • 60,900 additional home-based support workers
  • 10,000 additional community-based supported workers
  • 8,000 additional allied health workers.

When I look at these numbers, I have to remind myself that these are additional workers, so if any workers leave the sector (which is currently very common), the number of new workers required actually increases.

The Committee also discussed how limited we are in collecting and analysing data about the sector workforce. It recommends a data strategy to collect information that can better inform decision-making. The report specifically mentions that the impact of an increasingly casualised or contract-based workforce is unknown, and this could become a pressing issue in the coming years given the recent High Court decision on employees vs contractors.

Workforce conditions

The Committee consistently highlighted the challenges in attracting a disability workforce that go beyond simply wages. Disability support work is perceived as high-stress, insecure work. There is limited opportunity for career advancement, with poor training and supervision. In the report, this often came back to the capped pricing model. Within this model, many providers feel they have limited ability to offer stable employment or competitive wages. The NDIS Workforce Plan 2021-2025 has funding for measures to raise awareness of the benefits of being a disability support worker. The view of submissions to the Committee, however, was that this fiddling around the edges won’t improve retention if other, more complex factors aren’t addressed. Additionally, the Committee found that the next Cost Model Review should specifically include the views of support workers, which is something that made me say out loud, “Why isn’t that already happening?”

Varying the Award was one proposal for supporting providers to nurture and grow the workforce. The merits of an application to the Fair Work Commission to vary the Award (and the relative difficulty of doing that) were discussed at length. This would mean the entire Award would be reviewed, with particular attention given to how suitable it is for today’s disability support sector. This remains an option for the sector, but requires many parties – such as employees, unions, employers, and the NDIA – to be aligned for the best chance of success. This alignment in the sector would be hard work right now, given that many providers are flat out implementing the recent changes to the Award.

Thin markets

This old chestnut: the Committee extensively discussed thin markets and their impact on workforce, along with the impact of workforce on thin markets. Across many markets (like allied health services, regional and remote areas, and cohort-specific supports like those for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants) workforce challenges are the driver of thin markets. Some suggestions from the Committee include engaging members of local communities and the Workforce Plan broadening its focus beyond support workers. It would also include further development of the Allied Health Assistant options (where appropriate for the participant). The Committee recommended the development of co-designed initiatives specifically for growth of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce and tracking the progress of those initiatives.

The ‘lived experience workforce’

The Committee devoted significant space to the role of people with disability in the sector’s workforce. It reinforced how vital it is that people with disability be a key part of the workforce and how their participation and leadership can address long-standing systemic barriers. The report also covers a peer workforce strategy, training strategies for gaining meaningful employment (particularly tertiary education), and ways that the NDIA can increase the number of people with disability it employs. It’s worth noting that the most recent figures from the NDIA state that 18.2% of its workforce is people with disability, exceeding its goal of 15% and giving it the highest percentage of all Australian Public Service departments.

The Committee also identified that the concept of choice and control extends to the employment options that people with disability choose and that many may have no interest in working in the sector. The Committee recommends a co-designed and targeted strategy to improve employment opportunities for people with disability in the sector.

The registration conundrum

The Committee also discussed the challenges of registration and accreditation of workers. A lack of nationally accredited and recognised training, the Committee observed, is pushing providers to repeatedly retrain support workers to meet each organisation’s own quality standards. Submissions highlighted the benefits of a co-designed set of national benchmarks for skills required to support specific cohorts. Micro-credentials and skills passports – initiatives noted in the Workforce Strategy that involve including people with disability in the development process – were supported by the Committee, noting that the cost of these should not be passed onto workers.

The problem has consistently been how to create a nationally recognised workforce in such a highly diverse market – the NDIA’s Quarterly Report notes the Scheme has surpassed 500,000 participants, each of whom has unique requirements. Supporting participants to exercise choice and control under conditions of debilitating cost pressures is of critical importance. If anyone has any straightforward solutions, we’re all ears.

Overall, this is a welcome report. It highlights the ideas in the National Workplace Plan and asks, “How’s that going to work in practice?” There are still some major systemic challenges of the sort that come with any workforce initiatives, but getting the foundations right with co-design, data collection, and national consistency will be vital for long-term success.

Authors

Rob Woolley

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