The Federal Government’s NDIS National Workforce Plan 2021-2025 was released earlier this month (June 2021). Providers struggling to recruit and retain an adequate, suitable workforce will be unsurprised by the issues identified in the report. They have already been discussed in previous workforce analyses – including the poor standing of the support worker function, and sector employment as a whole; lack of training opportunities and career pathways; insecure hours; isolated working conditions… the list goes on.

The Plan identifies three priorities and 16 initiatives to deliver the required 31% growth in the disability workforce over three years, and 20% in aged care over the same period. The priorities are:

  1. Improving community understanding of the benefits of working in the sector, and strengthening entry pathways
  2. Training and supporting the NDIS workforce
  3. Reducing red tape, facilitating new service models and innovation, and providing more market information

Here’s our take on some of the key themes – and omissions.

  1. Integrated workforce

Although this is an NDIS Workforce Plan, it considers the ‘care and support’ workforce – encompassing disability, aged care and veterans’ care. There’s definitely some sense to this, not least the number of providers and roles that work across these different client groups. Initiatives designed to cut across the three areas include activities to promote employment opportunities, revised training programs, micro-credentials for training completed, and a skills (and screening) passport, so that employees can port their credentials between providers and sectors.

The elephant in the room is the award system. We’ve worked with disability service providers who have staff on multiple, conflicting awards because of the nature of their roles and professional qualifications. For organisations working across disability, aged care and veterans’ care, this problem is amplified. This impedes flexibility in deploying staff across different services, but the award issue is not discussed in the Workforce Plan.

  1. Speaking of pay….

The Plan is similarly silent on pay. Of all the initiatives designed to attract people to the care and support workforce, paying an adequate wage is not one of them. There is an opaque statement about ‘continuing to improve NDIS pricing approaches to ensure effective operation of the market’ and reference to thin markets and supporting workforce development. There’s also an instruction for providers to ‘ensure conditions of employment remain competitive relative to other industries to support the attraction and retention of suitable workers’.

We’ve worked with a lot of providers to review the financial viability of their service. The current relationship between award rates, NDIS pricing and service utilisation already makes it challenging for many metro providers to make money. It only gets harder as providers serve more remote communities. The availability of suitable workforce, the limited number of participants, and the travel distance required to deliver the services all act against service sustainability and profitability.

Unless award rates are sufficient to attract the necessary calibre of workers, and pricing recognises the utilisation challenges of service delivery (particularly in thin markets), the undersupply of service will continue.

  1. Instructions to providers

The plan includes a ‘to do’ list for providers. This includes instructions for them to reinvest the savings that will come from red tape reduction into innovation; to lead their organisations through cultural change ‘toward professionalism; innovation and digital literacy’; to undertake active, long term workforce planning; and to focus on strategies to enhance leadership capabilities.

We know that NDIS providers are not a homogenous group. They range from sole trader start-ups through to some very large, highly sophisticated organisations led by extremely well qualified professionals. The aspirations in the ‘to do’ list might be hard to disagree with, but the instructions to providers lack any recognition of the mammoth task already undertaken by providers in transitioning to the NDIS, or the chronic under-resourcing of many sector organisations.

What diversity?

The plan includes one initiative to ‘help build the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled sector to enhance culturally safe NDIS services’. There’s also a commitment to explore ‘options to support the development of micro-credentials to enhance culturally safe practices for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and culturally and linguistically diverse care recipients’. That’s it.

The analysis of the current position identifies that the lack of diversity in the workforce is a barrier to participant engagement; but this is not meaningfully addressed in the plan. Nothing about targeting workforce development and recruitment in First Nations or culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Nothing about trying to recruit more men into the care and support workforce. And – beyond some targeting of school leavers – nothing about recruiting younger workers. So basically, there’s nothing to ensure that the 83,000 new NDIS workers needed over the next three years better reflect the diversity and lived experience of the participants they are employed to support.

There’s no doubt that the plan includes some worthwhile initiatives, but it fails to address some of the key issues necessary to truly meet the workforce needs of providers and participants over the next three years.