Opening address for the 2017 National Disability Services’ Annual Conference ‘Disability at work: Unleashing potential’

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I start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Turrbal (Turr-bol) people, and pay my respects to their elders – past and present and emerging, and indeed to the elders of all cultures who are with us today. I particularly thank Songwoman Maroochy for her welcome to country.

I acknowledge:

  • NDS President, Joan McKenna Kerr
  • CEO, Ken Baker AM
  • NDS Board Members, and
  • Guests.

I am delighted to be at your 2017 National Disability Services annual conference. The theme of your conference – ‘Disability at Work: Unleashing Potential’ – highlights a key issue and an area of opportunity for people with disability. Disability employment, is as many of you are aware, one of my key focus areas.

For all Australians, employment offers economic security, improved well-being and independence, and this is exactly the case for people with disability.

But often, for a person with disability, their job is more than just a job. It is an avenue for social interaction, new experiences, a second family and being part of the community. And I am sure you have heard me say before, people with disability make great employees – focussed, dedicated and reliable and appreciative of the opportunity. Which is more than I can say for some ‘Generation Ys’, But I know I am preaching to the converted.

Improving Disability Employment outcomes is also one of the main areas of focus of the National Disability Strategy, which all levels of government have committed to support as part of a national approach to addressing the needs of people with disability in Australia.

Those of us in Government, community, business and industry, need to do all we can to recognise the benefits of employing people with disability, and take appropriate action. I am sure you have also heard me say that Australia currently ranks 21 out of 29 OECD countries in terms of employment participation for people with disability. If this was a sporting result, there would be an outcry! It would be on the front page of every paper in Australia. We need to do better.

It is well known that Australians with disability are under-represented in the workforce.

We know that 14 per cent of people who are of working age have a disability; however, only 53 per cent are either participating in work or seeking work, compared with 83 per cent of people without disability.

For people with disability to be employed at the same rates as people without disability, 640,000 more people with disability need a job.

This reality presents both challenges and opportunities for service providers and employers in a rapidly evolving economy and rapidly evolving labour market.

While there are many examples of good will to improve employment opportunities for people with disability across Australia, it will require a concerted effort across a range of fronts and significantly improved awareness if we are to achieve significant and lasting improvements.

First and foremost, the Government is keen to improve opportunities for people with disability to achieve employment in the open labour market, working closely with employers and industry to build employer demand; and making improvements to the Disability Employment Services program – which I will talk about in more detail shortly.

The Government also recognises a continuing need for supported employment and wants to see Australian Disability Enterprises (ADEs) continue as strong and viable businesses.

On Federal Budget night this year (which was only just last week), the Government confirmed its commitment to improving open employment outcomes for people with disability and announced improvements to the Disability Employment Services (DES) program.

Over the next four years, the Australian Government will invest more than $3 billion in DES and associated services to help people with disability achieve long-term jobs with mainstream employers.

This now includes more than $300 million over the next ten years to index payments to DES providers, ensuring DES providers can continue to support people with disability looking for work as costs increase.

These changes seek to improve the overall performance of the program and encourage better relationships between DES Providers, participants and employers.

The changes were a result of the extensive consultations with people with disability, disability peak organisations and disability providers and employers. I note Ken Baker was on the Disability Employment Reference Group. Thanks also to Joan McKenna Kerr and Ken Baker for their contributions to the NDIS Independent Advisory Council (IAC) which advises the NDIA Board, on the importance of employing people with disability.

And importantly for me, we also need to ensure participant plans include employment supports, because all too often that is left off the agenda.

I spoke with many stakeholders on budget night and I received a lot of positive feedback, particularly regarding the extension of the current contracts to 30 June and the indexation of payments.

One of the key areas highlighted by the disability community during these consultations was the need to provide more participant choice and control over the services they receive.

Under the new arrangements, the restrictions on participants’ choice of providers will be relaxed so more participants can go to a provider outside the Employment Service Area in which they live.

It will also be easier for DES participants to choose and change their provider if they are not satisfied with the support they are receiving.

If a DES participant changes to a new DES provider, service fees paid by the Government will move with them.

A key component of the DES reforms is relaxing some of the regulation that underpins the current program. I am always open to hearing about more red tape and regulations being removed so you can do your job.

Current market share arrangements will be abolished with the new model.

The removal of this market share means that DES providers will now have to attract job seekers to their organisation, rather than being guaranteed a flow of referrals from Centrelink.

Participants will be able to choose from which provider they would like to receive employment assistance, and of course, providers will need to ensure they are actively engaging job seekers, providing information on what services they can offer and how they will support them.

The new arrangements will also make it easier for existing high performing DES providers to expand their services into new regions, and for new organisations to become a DES provider by periodically opening up the program to the market.

The changes to DES will naturally improve competition and contestability between providers and drive the development of innovative services within DES.

I acknowledge that participants are going to need access to adequate information to help inform their choices. The Department will ensure readily accessible and easy to read information is available to participants, through the web and other means (I can see yet another app being developed), to enable jobseekers to make informed choices and to compare providers.

The funding model for DES has also been revised to better align provider revenue with provider performance.

Following consultation with the Disability sector, the new DES program will feature risk-adjusted outcome fees based on a participant’s likelihood of achieving an employment outcome.

Broadly speaking, job seekers who are more difficult to place require greater support and effort from their provider, so the outcome fees paid for achieving employment outcomes will be higher for those participants. Similarly, easier-to-place participants will attract lower outcome fees.

Outcome payments will be revised periodically, with funding levels updated to reflect the most recent data on the likelihood of achieving an employment outcome, based on participant characteristics and labour market characteristics.

This approach means achieving employment outcomes in more challenging labour markets will attract higher outcome payments, ensuring providers have the means and the incentive to work in these areas and remain viable. It equally acknowledges the extra effort they have to put in.

The revised funding model also marginally decreases service fees and marginally increases outcome payments to achieve an even balance at current levels of performance. Job placement fees will be paid after four, 13, 26 and now 52 weeks to encourage better initial job matching and longer lasting employment outcomes.

In addition to the program changes to DES, the Government will conduct a trial to extend support through DES to less disadvantaged students with disability in year 12.

Young people with disability completing secondary school can struggle with the transition from school to work and are at greater risk of disengaging from the labour market altogether, than their fellow students without disability. We need to stop that end of Year 12 dip where students tend to drop off their engagement and support them to transition slowly into work.

This trial will test whether support through DES will increase the number of young people who successfully transition from school to work, without adversely affecting their education.

The results of this trial will help determine whether DES should be extended to this cohort in the future, and if extended how this should be done. Some providers have suggested work experience commencing in Year 10 or 11 would help.

The trial will commence in 2018.

In addition, we will also be working to ensure the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) School Leaver Employment Supports program can dovetail with DES to provide participants with a smooth transition to DES when the need arises. I know NDS has been interested in making sure this happens.

The combination of these reforms will see around $40 million in red tape reductions for participants and providers every year.

For example, by removing the current restrictions that require participants and providers to always have face-to-face contact, we expect the sector to save tens of millions of dollars every year and will allow businesses to provide quality service when and where it suits the participant.

The reforms offer some of the most significant red tape reductions in the disability employment sector in years. Equally, we’re always open to hear of more opportunities to reduce red tape and regulations.

These changes build on the positive aspects of the program and will refocus the way DES will operate. It will be more flexible, more responsive, and more effective.

However, something that has not changed is the purpose of the program. DES is still about helping people with disability, injury or health conditions to find and retain work in the open labour market.

I would like to take this opportunity to clarify a few things that will NOT be changing – based on our consultation with your sector.

There will be no change to the Employment Services Areas in which DES providers will deliver services. During the consultation process, providers told us that it was important to maintain the number of ESAs and keep smaller regions to encourage diversity of service. For example, smaller specialist services may struggle to find the resources to deliver services to larger regions.

The two sub-programs of DES – the Disability Management Service (DMS) and Employment Support Service (ESS) will remain. It became clear in the consultations that requiring providers to offer services across both areas may diminish their overall performance.

There will also be no immediate changes to the Employment Services Assessments (ESAts). However, we will be undertaking a review of the assessment process throughout 2017-2018 which may result in changes to the ESAts in the future. The review will be undertaken in consultation with representatives of people with disability and DES providers.

As I said before, following consultation with your sector and your consistent feedback, the current provider contract arrangements have been extended from March 2018 until the end of June 2018, to give you plenty of time to smoothly transition into the new arrangements.

The Department will begin the panel arrangement process in the second half of this year and further details around this will be made available in the coming weeks.

What I can say now is that we will be inviting providers who have high star ratings in a particular ESA to continue to deliver services in those ESAs under the new model.

This will ensure stability in the DES market as we transition to the new model, while rewarding providers for their continued high performance.

We expect the transition to the new DES program will begin in the first half of next year, to enable the new program to commence on 1 July 2018.

While I talk about ‘transitioning’ to the new arrangements from early next year, I expect DES providers, or potential providers, have been planning for some time about how your organisation will transition to the new arrangements.

I understand my Department is providing a session on the DES reforms later at this Conference and this will be an opportunity for you to ask any questions you may have, but don’t hesitate to follow up after the conference.

The market is changing, there are some great opportunities and your organisations may have to adapt. I strongly encourage you to be active and innovative.

However, there are other supports that will continue largely unchanged. The JobAccess Gateway will continue as a source of information for people with disability and for employers. Funding for workplace modifications through the Employment Assistance Fund (EAF) will also continue.

Other supports that will continue include the availability of ‘Ongoing Support’ for people in employment; and what is currently called ‘Job-in-Jeopardy’ assistance, where people with disability who may not have received any assistance previously, need support to remain employed or people currently in employment who have developed a disability, and are seeking financial assistance.

‘Job-in-Jeopardy’ assistance provides employment support through DES to people with disability who are at risk of losing their job. It helps stabilise their employment so they can remain in work.

Unfortunately, overall participation in the ‘Job-in-Jeopardy’ program has been declining. During consultations employers and many others told us that the name ‘Job in Jeopardy’ was a deterrent to using the program, and in fact, some employers were concerned about the legal ramifications for suggesting such a program.

Therefore, I am delighted to advise that ‘Job-in-Jeopardy’ will be renamed to ‘Work Assist’. It is better to assist someone to stay in work than to have them lose their employment and then have to find their way back into employment. And I should give a shout out to AND for the name, proposed at one of the meetings I had with their stakeholder roundtable.

I encourage DES providers to work more closely with employers to communicate the assistance that can be provided through DES and through ‘Work Assist’.

The consultations done by the Department and indeed, the consultations I have had with employers themselves, have also identified that employers do not necessarily know what DES offers, nor what to expect from a DES provider.

The success of DES, and indeed success more broadly in getting more people with disability into work, is fundamentally reliant on employers - small, medium and large. We need to encourage them to recruit more people with disability, and to emphasise the benefits.

We know there are many wonderful success stories where there have been good outcomes for both employers and employees, such as the success of the Dandelion project run by Hewlett Packard, and the changes that Uber has made so they can employ deaf drivers.

We also know that it is not the skills, abilities and experiences of people with disability that keeps the workforce participation rate at 53 per cent.

Over the past year, in collaboration with employers and industry, we have started to build on how we increase employer demand for people with disability and provide better support to assist people with disability to remain in open employment. This includes ways to match the needs of employers with the available candidates.

Large employers, the big end of town, the Woolworths and the Coles and the Bunnings for example, tell me they want to be able to recruit people who understand their company culture. Many large employers want to do this without going through the DES provider, but need some kind of guidance or mentoring from a DES provider in concert with their in-house Human Resources team. Indeed some large companies are successfully employing people with disability independent of any government programs. What they would like to see is a DES provider providing a role like a broker to assist them in what they are trying to achieve.

The small to medium businesses want DES providers to understand their business better; the types of jobs they offer and the environment. They also need a mentor – someone they can call if they are not sure how to handle a particular situation. I have spoken before about the fear of accidentally offending someone or being politically incorrect. We need to approach businesses and support and encourage them to employ people with disability.

The now streamlined JobAccess Service has been working in collaboration with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Melbourne University to include a dedicated JobAccess - disability employment module as part of the postgraduate business curriculum.

This project takes an innovative approach to raising awareness and potentially influencing future recruitment practices amongst individuals who are studying to become Australia’s next business leaders.

From 1 April 2018, young job seekers in DES, jobactive and Transition to Work programs are able to undertake short internships through the PaTH Internships initiative. These internships allow employers to ‘test the waters’ and see how a potential employee might perform in a work experience environment before offering them a job. It also offers the person with disability the opportunity to see if it is the sort of job they expected it to be and if it will suit them.

While this is already available to DES participants, from mid-next-year providers will receive a payment for placing eligible young participants in these internships.

In March this year I announced my continued commitment to engaging with employers. I want to hear directly from employers about innovative strategies to employ more people with disability. I will be maintaining an open dialogue with employers and their representatives as key agents in addressing the demand side of disability employment.

There is growing recognition amongst employers that diversity in their workforce contributes to their success. Business leaders are seeing the potential of employing people with disability as part of a workplace strategy to address a unique business need – I have heard from security companies, who are actively seeking people with autism. We are also seeing more examples of organisations turning recruitment processes on their head purely to encourage people with disabilities to apply to work with their company.

Organisations are doing away with formal application processes or interviews just to attract the right people for the right job. And I want to see more of this.

In the end, employers who do not employ people with disability are doing themselves a disservice, as a person with disability may be the best person for that job.

I have put the call out to employers and DES providers for innovative ideas or ways to increase employment of people with disability. We must achieve better outcomes. I have asked my Department to work with organisations who put forward their ideas.

I understand the Department is considering developing online training, to build disability confidence for employers and employees, and to break down the misconceptions people hold around the benefits of people with disability.

The training will be free to use and self-paced to meet the needs of busy employers, their employees and the public in general.

I am also pleased to report that the National Disability and Carers Advisory Committee has established a Working Group to specifically focus on improving employment outcomes for people with disability and their carers.

This working group has identified their main priorities as: engaging more effectively with employers to increase employment of people with disability; improving the transition from education to work; and employment opportunities in regional and remote locations.

The Council will be looking at raising awareness of best practice and promoting champions in this space.

Another way to raise awareness about the benefits of employing people with disability is to recognise employers who have demonstrated success in this area. While the National Disability Awards and various other disability service providers have their own awards, to recognise achievement in the field of disability employment, I intend to engage with a broader range of organisations to encourage them to host their own disability awards.

I also acknowledge Tony from Helping People Achieve (HPA) in Darwin, who through his ADE work won the Telstra Small Business Award, not in the disability section but the over-arching award. Congratulations Tony.

Finally, I would like to touch on ADEs. The Government remains committed to the availability of supported employment – currently enabling employment for some 20,000 workers.

This commitment includes supporting the development of the Supported Wage System as a productivity based wage adjustment tool for use in supported employment, and has provided funding to test wage setting options with industrial parties through a Fair Work Commission conciliation process.

I understand industrial parties are close to agreeing to the introduction of variations to the Supported Wage System for use under the Supported Employment Services Award 2010.

Of course, we want to see the continued availability of supported employment, but we also want to see a more independent and viable sector.

The NDIS Market Approach has been developed to enable and support growth across the disability service sector aiming to reduce market risk and increase confidence of providers to invest in delivering NDIS services.

Funding for ADEs providing supported employment will continue while they gradually transition to the NDIS. Once a supported employee has a plan that includes employment supports approved under the NDIS, they can choose to purchase employment supports from an NDIS-registered provider. ADEs interested in providing supports under the NDIS should apply now to be a registered provider if you haven’t already done so.

ADEs are commercial businesses and need to be financially viable to ensure they are able to pay wages as prescribed by relevant industrial instruments, and meet the costs of running a business. However we know they are providing much more than just employment. Many of the supported employees I meet are excited to be a valued employee and part of a team and their family feels the same. I note that NDS has recently received funding to support the ADE sector in a range of social procurement initiatives.

This funding will build on the NDS Buyability initiative and provide procurement opportunities for government and commercial purchases, while assisting ADEs to better position themselves through the transition to the NDIS.

As Assistant Minister for Social Services and Disability Services, I am very fortunate and privileged to have oversight of Disability Services in Australia – especially with one of the greatest social reforms of our times, the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

We still have a long way to go but I would like to think I am presiding over Disability Services at a time when there is enormous support and good will for our policies and programs.

I know you will be working through many issues and challenges throughout your conference, and there will be further sessions on the DES Reform, Supported Employment and NDIS where Departmental officers will be available to answer your questions.

I will be continuing my consultations across Australia with service providers, people with disability and other stakeholders and I look forward to receiving more feedback on the DES Reforms and how we can make our OECD rating for disability employment much better than it is at the moment.

I wish every success for your conference, and thank you for inviting me. I will see you later this evening for the Awards presentation.