Seeking work? Critical industry needs 120,000. No experience necessary

When Shane White lost his job making flyscreen doors during the pandemic last year, a friend suggested he would make a good disability care worker.

The 56-year-old, who has worked in everything from landscaping to rubbish disposal and manufacturing, says it’s the best career decision he has made.

He enrolled in a JobReady program, which offers people with no prior disability experience seven days’ initial training and ongoing support in the workplace.

“I think that people don’t realise that entry to the industry is not that difficult and the rewards are just incredible,” Mr White said.

Shane White has become a disability support worker after losing his manufacturing job in the pandemic.Credit:Eddie Jim

The disability sector is pushing for more employees in industries hit by COVID-19 to consider a new career in disability services to help tackle a desperate shortage of workers.

National Disability Services chief executive David Moody estimates an extra 120,000 workers are required to meet the increased demand generated by the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which was introduced in 2013.

Almost 70 per cent of disability service providers had to turn away requests for services last year because they did not have the capacity to provide them, according to the State of the Disability Sector Report 2020.

“The NDIS will soon have 500,000 participants and, according to some estimates, the disability workforce will need to double in size in the next three years just to keep pace with increasing demand,” the report said.

“The fact the sector needs more workers is positive news in a recession, yet providers still report significant challenges in attracting and retaining a workforce across many vital job types.”

Australia needs an extra 120,000 disability support workers according to the peak national disability body.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Fiona Macdonald, a senior research fellow at RMIT, said the shift to an hourly funding model under the NDIS had resulted in an increasingly casualised workforce.

“It's increasingly short hours, work is increasingly basically insecure, so people are patching jobs together,” Dr Macdonald said.

A 2019 report co-authored by Dr Macdonald – Precarity and Job Instability in NDIS Support Work – found disability service workers were facing a new set of pressures arising from the NDIS’ market-driven approach.

These included instability in work and income, unpaid work travelling to clients and high levels of staff turnover, made worse by a lack of training and support.

Registered NDIS provider ONCALL Group Australia is forced to turn down 100 shifts a day because of the labour shortage.

ONCALL has a workforce of 1700 disability support workers in Victoria but is trying to recruit at least an extra 300 workers immediately and more in the future.

General manager of operations Laura Green called on the federal government to address the labour shortage.

She said this should include a national campaign to attract employees from COVID-affected industries, such as Mr White, who is employed by ONCALL.

“We could do with more and more Shanes in this industry. He brings all his life experience to people with disabilities.”

Ms Green also called for more funding for skills training and a more consistent funding model where the amount a client received was not constantly changing.

“It's really hard for us to commit to a worker when we don't know year on year if the client’s funding will stay the same,” Ms Green said.

“At the moment, the NDIS funds people to do two-hour shifts here, there and everywhere, they are funding a gig economy. It’s not going to create a workforce of the future that’s skilled and really can make a difference in the lives of people with disability.”

Able Australia acting CEO Lynette McKeown said the disability service provider was also experiencing a shortage of workers, particularly in less densely populated areas or where qualified staff were required.

“We are very supportive of initiatives assisting people in making career changes,” she said.

A Department of Social Services spokesperson said the government was working with states and territories to develop the NDIS national workforce plan, due to be released early this year.

In addition, the government was exploring and implementing a range of options to increase the disability workforce size and ensure quality safeguards were maintained.

“These include existing online supports for providers (available on the NDIS Commission website), mechanisms to attract and retain workers, fast-tracking on-boarding and targeted skills training,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said the National Disability Insurance Agency reviewed its price guide regularly, with updates reflecting market trends, costs in wages and other market influences.

Mr White believes disability care work will appeal to others from COVID-19-affected industries, although he said the casualisation of the industry was a negative.

A typical day for Mr White includes helping someone in a wheelchair get out of bed, shower and prepare for work; listening to a client with dementia reminisce about their life; and taking a man in his late 80s for walks in the park.

“I feel terrific every day, making such a difference to people’s lives,” he said. “Having been doing it for a while now, I’ve definitely regretted not doing it a long time ago.”

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