Workforce Learnings: Can student placements be a recruitment tool?
The University of Melbourne recently released a report on the perspectives of NDIS providers on student placements in rural Victoria. One of the findings was that many disability providers chose not to offer student placements during transition to the Scheme. Reasons included a need to focus time and energy on transition, as well as limited organisational capacity and resources to provide supervision to students.
NDS recently spoke to Sandra Shaw, Human Resources Manager at Blairlogie, about some of the ways her organisation has implemented successful workforce techniques to support their expansion during the rollout of the NDIS, and how – contrary to the findings of the report – an increase in their student placements has proven successful, now forming a significant part of their recruitment process.
Blairlogie is a disability service provider with a 30-year history in Cranbourne South. Over their transition to the NDIS, they experienced significant growth. From a workforce of 40 staff five years ago, they have now expanded to over 150 employees. Their service offerings have moved from a focus on day services to also delivering one-on-one support, and more recently expanding to accommodation services.
Disability providers continue to find it difficult to recruit workers (Australian Disability Workforce Report) with the most common reason cited that providers experience a lack of suitable or qualified candidates (NDS Workforce Wizard).
Contrary to this, Blairlogie does not need to advertise for disability support workers at all (except for niche skills, such as fluency in a particular language). They are able to make this work primarily through leveraging strong personal and organisational relationships, and by striving to be an employer of choice.
In contrast to many organisations significantly impacted by the NDIS in the University of Melbourne’s report, Blairlogie ramped up their intake of students through the rollout of the NDIS. From originally accepting about 10 students a year, they now take on 60 to 70 students annually – both those doing work experience and those completing placements for Certificate IV in Disability. A central part of this process involved forming strong relationships with the local TAFEs, who are a conduit for high-quality students and workers. Sandra estimates that about half of their current workforce first came to Blairlogie as students.
Sandra acknowledges that significant supervision is required by existing staff. However she highlights that the majority of the existing workforce are invested in the process, primarily due to the fact that many of them were themselves students on placements or work experience at the organisation at some point. In this way, the staff appreciate the value and potential in supporting students in the organisation.
Under supervision, the students are expected to carry out the support work themselves, which allows them to gain experience first-hand. Then, when it’s time to hire, students are a natural first cohort to consider. The advantages are many. Not only do students have an existing familiarity with the clients, the staff and the organisation, but the organisation itself has had some time to consider the capabilities of the student. 120 hours of placement time is "a pretty good interview", says Sandra.
According to information collected as part of NDS’s Workforce Wizard, one of the most common reasons new employees gave for leaving is that they were not suited for the job. Recruiting students ameliorates this: for those doing TAFE/RTO placements, the chances that they don’t understand the type of work involved is lower than other prospective employees who may have no knowledge of the sector. Additionally, for those doing work experience, the placement gives them a significant amount of time to understand what disability support work entails, meaning fewer surprises when they begin paid work.
Blairlogie has also leveraged personal relationships to make recruitment easier. One of the local communities the organisation has tapped into is the African community. Sandra explains that it has often been the case that a staff member from the African community has recommended another community member as a worker, and this worker has recommended another person – and so the workforce expands, often by word-of-mouth.
Other engagement with the local community involves Blairlogie working closely with the local primary school and partnering with NDS’s own projectABLE team. Much of this, Sandra emphasises, is important in working to normalise disability in the minds of school children. The impact of this may not be immediately apparent, but Sandra says it's not uncommon for people to want to volunteer with Blairlogie after having a positive impression much earlier in life.
There has been a trend towards disability service providers hiring casually-employed workers over past years – albeit not as significantly as they might have expected. Casual workers generally have higher turnover, and we have observed this in the disability sector. (See the Disability Workforce Report.)
Despite Blairlogie having a largely casual workforce, employee turnover is low. One of the factors Sandra attributes this to is Blarilogie’s recognition of the strengths and interests of the people who work there. When staff and students come to Blairlogie, the organisation considers both the areas they have existing strengths in, and their personal and professional interests. Blairlogie then works to match them to roles which will use their strengths, and does what it can to help them to work their interests into the way they work. One example Sandra provides is of an employee who came to the organisation with a passion for multimedia. Blairlogie fostered this interest and the employee now runs a full multimedia program and maintains a multimedia studio for clients.
Sandra had some final advice for other disability providers considering their staffing options:
"If you’re looking to increase your workforce, look at students," Sandra says. "You’re shaping the workers of the future, and you get the benefits out of it too. You get to look at the workers before anyone else does!"