The disability services sector felt they were an “afterthought” to aged care during the pandemic, a new report has found.

The State of the Sector 2021: Community and Disability Workforce Insights report from superannuation fund HESTA surveyed community and disability services workforces.

The report, released yesterday, is the third and final report in its State of the Sector workforce research series.

Earlier this year, HESTA released reports on the aged care and early childhood education workforce.

The superannuation fund undertook two online member surveys, one before the pandemic in May 2019 and again during the outbreak in July 2020.

There were responses from close to 1,000 HESTA community services members, including almost 200 disability services professionals.

In addition to the surveys, HESTA discussed findings with representatives from five industry organisations, including peak bodies, employers and unions.

“The [disability services] sector was told in the early stages, ‘just use the aged care stuff’,” – industry representative

Impact of pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about certain challenges to the industry, including an increase in demand for services, providers feeling strained to meet increased demand and significant financial pressure.

For the disability services sector, industry representatives told HESTA they were dissatisfied with the amount of support from the Federal Government, with some believing that disability services were an “afterthought” to aged care.

“The [disability services] sector was told in the early stages, ‘just use the aged care stuff’, which people of course found concerning because there is a huge difference between aged care and disability,” one representative said in the report.

“In the nature of the work, one has much more a health model and one is much more a community model.”

Another representative agreed.

“We can’t just cut and paste any of the aged care approaches here.”

Workers want more career opportunities

The report found around one in six community services professionals surveyed were planning to leave the sector in the next two years.

In the community services sector, the top three reasons respondents gave for wanting to leave their employers were a desire to develop new skills, insufficient career opportunities or a yearning to try something different.

It was similar for disability services professionals, who listed skills development and a lack of career opportunities as the top reasons for wanting to leave their employers.

HESTA CEO Debby Blakey said the risk of losing skilled staff could make it harder for the health, community and disability services workforces to meet future demand.

“Community and disability services professionals have been at the coalface of the pandemic, providing care and support in a time of extreme uncertainty and instability,” she said in a statement.

“What’s most concerning is that younger professionals are most likely to plan on leaving, risking a deepening gap in skills and experience unless career and training opportunities are improved.”

The findings in the report show that almost a third of young professionals aged between 18 and 39 are planning to exit in the short term.

Although training and development opportunities may be harder to change due to constraints of time and resources, an alternative could be providing employees with more variety of work, according to the report.

“Strengthening career pathways, providing more training opportunities and leadership development can help retain experienced professionals and attract the people we’ll need to meet expected future demand.” – HESTA CEO Debby Blakey

Working hours impacted

The pandemic also impacted the working hours of the sector, with approximately 40 per cent of respondents reporting that their paid working hours were disrupted.

This meant that some in the sector worked more hours (21 per cent) while others had their paid hours reduced (18 per cent).

Within disability services, respondents said there was an increase in demand for individual support because clients were not attending day or group programs, or were working from home, due to restrictions.

However, respondents also reported feeling prouder to work in the industry after the pandemic.

Industry representatives believe this could be due to the sector feeling more appreciated by the community in 2020.

“There is positive news and a good foundation to build on in terms of the sector’s workforce strategies,” Ms Blakey said.

“Strengthening career pathways, providing more training opportunities and leadership development can help retain experienced professionals and attract the people we’ll need to meet expected future demand.”

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