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Opinion Governance

Opinion: The new NDIS National Workforce Plan misses the mark

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NDIS Workforce

In June this year the Department of Social Services (DSS) released the long awaited ‘NDIS National Workforce Plan: 2021-2025’. 1

While impressive on some points it fails to address the economic and social impacts of the NDIA’s price limits on the sector’s ability to offer a decent living wage for frontline support workers.

The document is well researched and has a strong focus on innovation. There are three priority areas: improving community understanding of the roles available, training the workforce and reducing red tape while fostering new service models and innovation.

These priority areas are then supported by 16 initiatives. So it appears there really was a genuine desire to develop a Plan that might actually build a stable, qualified workforce.

Not surprisingly, hot on its heels, the government launched the new ‘Life Changing Life’ multi-media campaign aimed at attracting “at least another 130,000 to 150,000 workers over the news few years”2 into the care sector (aged care, veterans and disability) and changing the ‘perception’ that it is an underpaid career choice.

Critical workforce shortage

As a result of the NDIS, the Australian disability sector is currently experiencing a labour crisis, one that has been predicted for many years.

To give you an idea of the scale of this challenge: there are now over 450,000 NDIS participants and 270,000 workers. Providers need to attract an additional 83,000 more support workers by 2024 – and simultaneously address the high staff turnover rates of 17-25%.3

In short, the disability sector workforce needs to grow by 31% in the next three years.

What’s not working: NDIS pricing

It appears as if the DSS has failed to comprehend the fundamental impact of the NDIA’s artificial price limits on the whole workforce quality and supply issue. (Pricing is mentioned, but only as one of those 16 initiatives.)

Attracting new support workers into the sector requires more than improved entry pathways, development programs and a ‘feel good’ $13.3 million national TV campaign aimed at changing perceptions.

What is required is a good honest look at the impact of the NDIS on working conditions and then actually changing a few of those frontline realities.

Over the last few years I’ve spoken with hundreds of disability support workers. The majority of these workers are absolutely committed to the clients they serve.

However, too often these same workers are financially struggling to make ends meet. The economic reality is that many support workers are juggling shorter shifts across multiple employers just to earn a living.

This is not just a perception. It is the reality.

In July 2020, a study of disability support workers by the University of Melbourne found that “20% of respondents could not pay a bill, their mortgage or rent or actually went without meals”.

The problem is that the Disability Support Worker cost model (upon which the NDIS pricing is based) is only viable if you operate a high volume, low support transactional service model. It is based on the top 25% of providers with economies of scale.

The model is not financially viable for any organisations supporting people with more complex intellectual disabilities or those who may need longevity in a relationship.

If we are genuinely serious about enabling frontline quality and building a stable, qualified workforce then this means: – more than two hours of ‘buddy shifts’ before a first solo shift – on the job training and ongoing professional development – a career path, regular performance reviews, and above all – an hourly rate that delivers a decent living wage. All of this requires a less regulated price mechanism. Otherwise, only larger providers (or those supporting people with less complex needs), will be financially sustainable.

What’s not working: Shorter shifts

Because of the new funding model and the fluctuations in client demand, support workers now face the dilemma of unstable rostered hours.

Shifts are shorter, workers are more isolated and more stressed as they try to juggle family needs around an ever changing weekly roster – and still pay their bills.

As Michael Chester (Head of Service Operations, UnitingCare West) remarked in his interview for my book, “If the current trend continues, we have the possibility of a new working poor emerging in the ranks of disability providers around the country.”

Unfortunately, the National Workforce Plan is a missed opportunity. It does not address the frontline reality of disability. And let’s face it, in disability, the frontline IS the business.

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