I got out of this industry and role because there was no care for these clients, nor a plan to help those in need.
This chapter examines issues related to employment services consultants. It considers the extent of engagement with employers under jobactive.
The chapter is structured according to the following topics:
Mistreatment of participants
Engagement with employers
The committee's recommendations are set out throughout the chapter.
There are high turnover rates in the employment services sector. Jobactive provider consultant turnover is 42 per cent per annum. This is almost three times the national average. The Australian Unemployed Workers' Union (AUWU) summarised the difficult environment that many consultants work in:
Case workers themselves are in a difficult position. Some have been unsuccessful in their own job seeking efforts, having taken the position because nothing else was available. Due to the lack of adequate training provided, some cannot communicate well with people facing significant barriers to work and often adopt an attitude to which blames unemployed workers for their own unemployment. Others feel frustration with their organisations who engage in dubious business practices requiring them to act in ways contrary to their own personal value systems.
The committee heard that high staff turnover rates have a number of implications for service quality. The Edmund Rice Centre WA summarised these implications as follows:
The staff in the Jobactive agencies changes and rotates quickly. This leads to the inconsistent advice and an exceptionally long time for staff members to get an understanding of the client's issues and needs… The liquidity of the Jobactive workforce negates all the effort and resources spent when almost each new appointment with the client is managed by different staff members.
According to Ms Kim Pendlebury, a jobactive participant from Melbourne, high staff turnover is extremely frustrating for participants:
…the high staff turnover within the JSPs [jobactive providers] is often incredibly frustrating. You deal with one person for a few months only to be informed on one visit that they're moving on, and you've got to get to know a new consultant. I reckon that in my almost six years I've dealt with at least half-a-dozen consultants, if not more, at one agency.
The committee heard that it is common in the industry for consultants to be managing very high caseloads. The average caseload is 148 participants. The AUWU submitted that these caseloads make it 'impossible for most case managers to meaningfully fulfil the code of practice and the service guarantee'. Similarly, Jesuit Social Services observed that 'irregular meetings with a caseworker who has a high volume of clients is not likely to provide a basis for meaningful relationships or support'. The government has acknowledged that high caseloads make 'it difficult to provide high quality, tailored services to disadvantaged job seekers’.
A number of submitters experienced the adverse impact of high caseloads. For example, one submitter described having group appointments:
I tried to talk to my service provider but it was not easy. The way that they approached me when they wanted me to do something was usually like this, 'do this', 'do that'. I found them hard to talk to although I tried. I found them very condescending too. My appointments were conducted in groups of up to 20+ other people, in the front waiting room in front of other clients too.
A facilitator for the Career Transition Assistance pilot program reported that all of the participants they engaged with 'described the staff members they were dealing with as ineffective not because they couldn’t do their job but because it was evident there were not enough staff available or the time for those staff to effectively support them'. The facilitator also reported that high turnover undermined case management:
Most participants experienced a consistent staff turn over and so cases could not be managed effectively due to new staff not being in touch with the relevant issues or up to date information. One jobactive staff member we communicated with described 2 staff members being responsible for a caseload of 800 clients.
According to some submitters, employment services consultants do not receive adequate training. Ms Kylie Wright, an employment consultant, advised that she had 'very limited training in most aspects of the Employment consultant role'. An exception to the general trend was JobLink Plus, a not‑for-profit provider, which informed the committee of its partnership with the University of New England to develop a training program for staff, based on positive psychology, and 'developing interviewing skills that provide encouragement and hope for jobseekers'. Mr Nick Tebbey, Chief Executive Officer of the Settlement Council of Australia, recommended that consultants should have cultural awareness training and specific training if they are working with certain vulnerable groups. Similarly, Ms Emma Dawson, Executive Director of Per Capita, an Australian public policy think tank, submitted that consultants should have specific training in the service being delivered:
The requirement is for people to understand the service they are being asked to give, to understand the conditions of the local job market and to have some sensitivity around some of the other issues that people who are engaging with these services might be going through…
There were mixed views on whether consultants should be required to have particular qualifications. For example, the Edmund Rice Centre WA submitted that 'the qualification level of the Jobactive staff is overwhelmingly inadequate for the role and the purpose they are to fulfil'. In contrast, other submitters suggested that attributes and skills were more valuable. Matchworks and ESG advised that when recruiting they put weight on 'life experience, experience in different industries, cultures, languages, and various related qualifications'. Ms Emma Dawson from Per Capita pointed out that it is unclear what particular qualification would be appropriate for consultants.
Mistreatment of participants
Although many employment consultants do their best to assist jobactive participants, the committee heard that some participants experience disrespectful treatment. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, mistreatment makes refugees and migrants less confident about finding a job:
Participants reported feeling disrespected and stigmatised and often threatened with having their welfare benefits suspended. Dealing with clients in this way, especially clients of a refugee and migrant background, only serves to make the jobseeker less confident in their ability to find a job and in the entire settlement process.
Similarly, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand (GSANZ) reported that while some providers are courteous, 'others engage in intimidation, threats, bullying and abusive interactions with clients'. GSANZ attributed this to the limited qualifications that consultants have and the fact that providers are accountable to government rather than clients. Ms Kylie Wright, herself a consultant, submitted that 'many employment consultants treat the job seekers like second class citizens'.
The committee acknowledges the challenges that employment services consultants face in trying to assist their clients to find a job whilst also meeting the government's substantial compliance requirements. The appropriateness of the provider's dual role of assisting and policing jobactive participants is examined in Chapter 8. The committee considers that the government should reconsider the economic imperatives that contribute to problems like high turnover and high caseloads. This is discussed in more detail in Chapter 10.
The committee does not support requiring employment services consultants to have particular training qualifications. Requiring qualifications would impose an additional cost on a sector already burdened by compliance requirements. Additionally, the committee notes that there is a lack of consensus around what specific qualification would be appropriate for consultants.
However, the committee is of the view that the government should consider allocating additional funding for employment consultant/staff training and professional development.
The committee recommends that the government consider allocating additional funding for employment consultant/staff training and professional development.
Engagement with employers
Jobactive services are offered to employers free of charge, with financial incentives available. However, over time there has been a reduction in the number of employers using public employment services. Only four per cent of employers used the jobactive system in 2018. In 2015 4.7 per cent of employers used public employment services while in 2011 the figure was eight per cent. However, Ms Dianne Fletcher the Chief Executive Officer of Sarina Russo Job Access pointed out that employers may not always be aware if their employees come through jobactive.
There was general consensus amongst submitters that engagement with employers is important for improving employment outcomes. Ms Emma Dawson, the Executive Director of Per Capita, explained that it is critical for consultants to 'work with employers to understand where the jobs are'. In the same way, SYC, a provider, submitted that effective engagement with employers is 'key to the success or failure of Australia's employment services'.
The committee heard that employers find it difficult to engage with jobactive, and do not want to be contacted by multiple providers. The committee also heard that employers are burdened by a large number of irrelevant applications. This issue is considered in Chapter 7 in relation to job search requirements.
The committee also heard that consultants are aware of the need to engage with employers, however, can be constrained in doing so. On average, jobactive staff spend only 10.3 per cent of their time working with employers. Ms Kylie Wright, a consultant, who works alone in the office, informed the committee that she was not able to leave her office to go and meet with employers. Ms Annette Gill, Principal Policy Advisor for the National Employment Services Association, explained that providers are not directly funded to engage with employers, but do so in order to 'get an outcome and get income'.
Employer engagement under future employment services
The Expert Panel's report into the future of employment services notes that employers 'report not having clear points of contact in the employment services system'. The Panel recommended coordinated, strategic outreach to employers and a focus on building trusting relationships:
A more targeted approach to promotion will mean more employers will be connected to the digital services and list their vacancies online. Local-level engagement, supported by providers, will be better received by employers.
The Panel also recommended employer access to the full pool of job seekers, via the employer's preferred channels, a free shortlisting service, and face-to-face recruitment services for employers.
The committee notes that employer engagement under jobactive has been poor and in decline over time. The committee considers that the Expert Panel's proposed new approach to employment services, including freeing-up consultants to spend more time with employers, would be a marked improvement on current practices.