After a dramatic drop in demand in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a disability service in Far North Queensland is seeing a surge in people wanting to access services.
- A surge in disability service demand has highlighted a worker shortage in the industry
- Low wages and competition within the industry have been identified as problems in attracting employees
- Industry bosses are calling for a recalibration of NDIS pricing
ARC Disability Services Hub, in Cairns, saw a huge drop in demand earlier in the year, with some clients cutting down their weekly support from 40 hours to two.
But chief executive Benjamin Keast said, in the month of May, clients sought an additional 1,000 hours of care and 90 people enquired about accessing the service for the first time.
Staff are excited to see so many people back at the centre, but the rise in demand sparked concern about a growing problem for organisations like ARC, according to Mr Keast.
“One of the biggest challenges will be finding the people who wish to work in the industry and who are suited to the industry,” he said.
Thousands of disability support worker positions are estimated to be vacant across the country, and there are not enough trained people to fill the jobs.
Mr Keast said the issue affected regional areas in particular.
“The anticipation is we’re going to need over 700 full-time equivalents by 2023,” he said.
“And that’s just within the Cairns area.”
Mr Keast said demand for the service had continued to rise since May, which he expected would be reflected in the figures from June.
Hard work, low wages
National Disability Services chief executive David Moody said the sector needed to grow its workforce by up to 60,000 people to meet the national demand for services under the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
“Particularly in regional and remote parts of Australia, we find there is a shortage of workers,” he said.
He said low wages and competition within the aged care sector were also contributing to recruitment struggles.
“This is unfortunate in the context of our sector being the fastest growing workforce in the Australian economy prior to COVID-19,” Mr Moody said.
Staff on the brink of burn-out
Spinal Life chief executive Mark Townend said the struggle to recruit staff put existing workers at risk of burnout.
He said over the recent school holiday period his organisation had difficulty filling about 90 shifts per week at its Cairns centre.
“We try not to let it impact the service at the client level, but it certainly impacts the office and internal staff that do the rostering, who scramble to try to make sure those shifts are filled,” Mr Townend said.
“We have a lot of dedicated staff who will help fill those other roles, but we don’t want to wear them out either.
Call to boost NDIS wages
Mr Moody said the Federal Government was currently designing a National Workforce Strategy for the sector, in collaboration with stakeholders.
He said more needed to be done to attract new workers to the sector, such as marketing the profession in schools and improving wages.
“Among the mechanisms that could be relied upon would be for National Disability Insurance Scheme prices to be calibrated, so as to take into account the importance of a living wage for those workers providing NDIS-funded services,” he said.
“The National Disability Insurance Scheme is a scheme in which prices are set through a price guide … and we would say some of the assumptions around the cost of labour, wages and conditions, are assumptions that demand to be revisited.”
Mr Keast said the Government should look at ways to incentivise people from other industries who had lost work to transfer their skills to the disability sector.
‘I enjoy the role so much’
ARC disability support worker Joseph Allas said he loved his job and could not understand why more people were not flocking to fill vacant positions in the sector.
“I just assume everyone would want to do it,” he said.
“That’s why I am always surprised that there is such a demand and not many people to fill it, just because I have such a good time and I enjoy the role so much.”
Mr Allas said more awareness was needed about the benefits of a career in disability.
“I think if people realised just how much fun [it is] and the value in this role and what you get from it, I think it might change people’s opinions,” he said.