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Skills and training needs in the disability sector

21 May 2019

Changes occurring in the disability sector as a result of the NDIS have significant implications for the training of support workers, and the trainers themselves. Kate Perkins and Justin Brown report.

The disability support sector is Australia’s fastest growing in terms of employment. With the phased roll-out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), the sector is in the process of complete transformation.

Prior to the NDIS, the government either directly provided services or contracted commercial or not-for-profit providers to deliver services for eligible people with disability. Now the government funds individual packages of supports, tailored by clients to best meet their individual needs. Consequently, the sector needs to adopt new behaviours and practices that reflect a genuine understanding and appreciation of what a client-directed approach entails, and is based around the provision of person-centred support.

The NDIS is turning the world of service providers upside down, and this in turn has sweeping ramifications for a support worker’s employment conditions and responsibilities. In this market driven environment, support workers become front line representatives of their organisations in a way that has not occurred before, and face new challenges as they seek to retain clients who, under the NDIS, have the ability to go elsewhere. Due to the changing nature of work organisation in the industry, support workers also need skills and knowledge to manage their own careers, as many are employed part time – possibly by several different providers – and there is greater potential for self-employment.

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) has completed a number of projects aimed at better understanding and addressing the skill needs of support workers in NDIS contexts. The findings have implications for the design of training products and the professional development of trainers and assessors involved in the delivery of training for aspiring and current disability sector support workers.

Support worker skills

ACER research on ‘employability’ skills in the disability and aged care industries sought to better understand what these important non-technical skills looked like in action, and the ways in which their development could be facilitated.

Using the Core Skills for Work developmental Framework (CSfW) as a common language and set of reference points, the research found that a small set of non-technical skills were essential - or ‘mission critical ‘- to work performance in these industries. They were highly valued by clients and employers.

Not surprisingly, support workers in aged care (residential) and disability (residential and community) needed the interpersonal skills to build rapport and recognise and respond to diverse perspectives. However, ACER’s research found that disability support workers operating in an NDIS context with clients in the community needed more sophisticated interpersonal and problem solving skills than those working in institutional settings. They had much greater autonomy, and were regularly called upon to ‘think on their feet’ (often to keep a client from harm), while continuing to respect their client’s perspectives and priorities. In contrast, those working with clients in institutional settings needed better developed skills to collaborate with other employees.

A key feature of this research was that these differences in skill requirements could be described with a high degree of precision using the CSfW performance descriptors.

While industry consultations have found that service providers report a need for workers with the knowledge and skills to work on their own, and with clients across a broad age range, many of whom have complex needs, there has previously been no way of describing the skills involved with the level of precision required to inform the design of appropriate training and assessment.

Importantly, a mapping of the entry-level qualification for disability support workers found that the non-technical skills that had been identified as mission critical were not explicitly covered at all, or were required at a lower CSfW level than needed to do the job. This was also reflected in differences in the expectations of vocational trainers and employers providing work placements, with trainers generally having lower expectations about the levels of skill sophistication required by a graduate. The employers and trainers involved had not been aware of this misalignment, yet it had potential implications for the extent to which a trainer might seek to enhance key non-technical skills, for a learner’s chances of gaining employment with that employer, and for the host employer’s perceptions of the effectiveness of the RTO.

While immediately relevant to the disability sector, the research methodology is applicable in any work context. Being able to identify mission critical non-technical skills, and describe these with a high degree of precision, has important implications for vocational teaching, learning and assessment.

Defining mission critical non-technical skills:

  • helps employers, trainers and training package developers pinpoint the knowledge and skills that are essential to effective performance;
  • helps learners identify their strengths and the areas they need to work on;
  • makes it possible to identify the strengths and gaps of current training products and redesign these as required;
  • provides a basis for focusing training effort where it will bring the greatest return.

Trainer and assessor skills

Another ACER research project focused on the professional development (PD) needs of trainers and assessors responsible for the delivery of core VET qualifications for the NDIS workforce. The vast majority of these trainers had gained their industry experience in pre-NDIS contexts, and recognised that they required new knowledge, skills and practical experience.

NDIS-specific aspects included an understanding of new regulatory and legislative frameworks and logistics. Broader implications included the changing needs and expectations of service delivery employers, and impacts on the role of the support worker, including customer service, communication and interpersonal skills needs. Once again, the CSfW played a role in helping to define the non-technical skills that were mission critical.

Consultation with trainers found that they prioritised PD that expanded their knowledge of different kinds of disability, enhanced their understanding of person-centred practice and active support, and gave them strategies to support learners with additional needs.

Trainers and assessors wanted PD that encompassed a broad range of approaches designed to increase their knowledge base, enhance skill sets, explore attitudinal perspectives, and consider how to adapt and apply these to training in an NDIS context.

ACER’s recommendations regarding a cross-sectoral PD program involving RTO managers, trainers, NDIS clients and service providers informed the decision of the commissioning state government to deliver an integrated program of professional development opportunities.

Collectively, these ACER research projects have described the non-technical skill needs of disability support workers to a degree not previously attempted, identified gaps in current qualifications and identified key areas where trainers recognise they need additional knowledge and skills. This new information has many applications, each with the potential to improve the quality of support provided to people with a disability. ■

Further information:
This article reports on research conducted by ACER Senior Research Fellows Justin Brown, Kate Perkins and Louise Wignall, and ACER Research Fellow Gina Milgate.

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About the author

Dr Justin Brown is a Senior Research Fellow in ACER's Tertiary Education research program. 

More [rd] articles by Justin Brown

View selected works of Justin Brown

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About the author

Kate Perkins is a Senior Research Fellow in ACER's Educational Policy and Practice research program.

More [rd] articles by Kate Perkins

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