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Standing Committee on Education and Employment
Mental health and workforce participation

ROGAN, Mr Kevin John, Chair, Regional Skills Formation Network

VELT, Mr Garry, General Manager, Interwork Ltd

WILSON, Ms Tracy, Employment Consultant, Interwork Ltd


CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same proceedings of the respective houses. To start the discussion I would ask each of you to please talk a bit about your role. Our inquiry is very broad, looking at the barriers of people with mental health issues to get training, employment and so on. Please make any comments you would like on that as well and then we might open up for questions.

Mr Rogan : I am also a local justice of the peace and consultant with the Regional Australian Apprenticeships Centre. We operate through Career Employment Group here in Whyalla. I work primarily within this region. I have lived and worked in the Whyalla region for over 45 years, so I know it pretty well. Not only do I work in Whyalla but also my current role takes me to Port Augusta, up to Leigh Creek and as far as Nepabunna, where the Adnyamathanha people are. I work at Kimba, Koweo and move as far across as Port Pirie. We also have offices in Adelaide.

Our role is, primarily, to work with apprentices and trainees and try to place those people into employment. The barriers that we face with many of those people are the same barriers that I have come across that we face with trying to place people with mental health issues into employment—except they are greater. I have categorised them probably into two areas. The first category is those that are internal ones. They are the ones where the person with a mental health issue is able to have some control of themselves, such as their commitment, their time-keeping, the control of their medication, their level of drug and alcohol abuse or not abuse, their literacy and numeracy level and their schooling and the effectiveness of that schooling.

The second category I looked at is probably the bigger one, which is external factors. We have parties which are empathetic to the employment of people with mental health issues, so they are empathetic to a job seeker with a specific barrier. While we have had some success through Career Employment Group, we find that we have to go out and market this particular group of people. We have to try to identify real opportunities and find appropriate industries that will accept them—large retail industries; some large manufacturing industries. We find we also need to have it driven from the CEO downwards. If I go to the HR section of an organisation and say, 'I have got somebody with a bipolar condition and I would like them to be given an opportunity to work here in retail,' nothing will happen. I will put in the resume and hell could freeze over before I get a reply. But if I can engage the CEO, take him out to tea, have an ongoing dialogue and market the program that we are trying to do, the likelihood is that I will get him to commit to a pilot of one or two people. We had Harry there before. One of the things that we were able to do with Harry's group was to provide the training side for those people, which gave some additional funding which assisted that group to move forward.

If I find a sympathetic employer who is prepared to give a person a go, the next stage is that they say, 'What is it worth to me?' They can get an average worker—it costs them nothing—up to speed within weeks and there is no administrative or supervision overhead to that employer. But when the worker is a person with a mental disability—this external barrier that I talked about—the immediate problem is that the employer says to me, 'I can't afford to spend the time with one of my supervisors looking after your girl or boy 24/7, or while they are at work. We are working in a heavy industry, the risk potential is far too high. I would like to help you but I'm sorry, I can't.' We are limited with employment opportunities anyway. There may be plenty of jobs but the scope of those jobs is limited. We have the mine; we have some retail; we have some heavy manufacturing. These are all very high risk areas. You have to be pretty switched on to be working in them.

We have found with some of the programs—particularly Indigenous programs that CEG has been very successful in, and we are asked continually to develop them—that we have had a supervision component and a mentor component; and with the Indigenous fellows, particularly if they are working away from their homes, we have created a system called Males in Black. Under this program, when issues occur—say people are working at Roxby Downs and an issue is occurring with family in Port Augusta—we do not want that person to walk off site and go straight back to Port Augusta. Males in Black provide the liaison, and we pay them handsomely, between the family and the worker. The company is happy because it has a reliable worker who turns up for a shift, the family is happy because it has a communication channel to their loved one working up there, and the whole partnership tends to work.

We also find Job Services Australia has very limited funding available. So, if you have somebody who is in mainstream—they are not on a disability support pension because their condition does not warrant that; they may be in level 4—what Job Services can offer is quite limited. If you go to an employer and say, 'I will give you a subsidy for this worker' and you go back to Job Services and say, 'How much will this be?' and it says, 'We will pay $1,500 after 13 weeks', then the employer thinks about this and says, 'Oh, $30 a week, or $50 a week—that is not very much.' Then the icing on the cake is that they say, 'We will pay that retrospectively, so the person has to manage to stay here for 13 weeks and then we will pay you $1,500'. At the end of 10 weeks, the wheels are falling off and the person does not turn up. The employer says, 'I will give this a miss; could you pay me my subsidy?' We go back to the job network and the job network says: 'Sorry, pal, the agreement was 13 weeks. He did not make 13 weeks; therefore you do not get your payment. The employer says, 'Well, I am never going to be part of that program ever again'. So employers are saying to me, 'We want timely funding every payday, and we want realistic funding.' So, if somebody is getting $500 a week as a national wage, the employers are saying: 'I want you to pay $300 of that. I also want you to have somebody there to be mentoring this person until we have got to a stage where we can ease off that support and the person can then go alone.'

The supervision overhead is a real issue. Particularly, I have one lad who currently has some mental health issues, some literacy and numeracy issues, who is working for a heavy fabric manufacturer. It was in conjunction with these guys; before these current two were there, we were able to place this young boy into work. The employer was sympathetic but, with the hurdles we went through to get additional funding through the doors program, I can see why people just give up. You give them a mum or a dad or a person with disability and then say, 'There are 30 pages; I need you to fill them in very accurately and if they are not accurate then they will be rejected'. I have trouble filling them in, so why do we go through a process where we have a complex entitlement system that is just another barrier?

There is very poor management by Centrelink in dealing with these people—no empathy at all. They come in, they want to make some inquiries as to what would happen if they did this or if they worked for 25 hours a week, and they are effectively told, 'You will be cut off your payment.' There is no discussion and no, 'Well, we could work it so that, if you work for 15 hours a week, we maintain your DSP payment.' That is one of the biggest barriers that I have found. I have not had many jobs, but I know that when I have gone from one job to the next I feel anxiety about leaving the job where I am secure and understanding and competent to go into another job—which I know I can do, but there is just something that just says, 'Kevin, are you doing the right thing?' Those are exactly the feelings that people who are on a disability payment are having when they are told, 'Well, if you go into the mainstream, if we can get you into the mainstream through one of my programs or one of Harry's programs, then you are going to be cut off that disability pension by Centrelink,' and Centrelink is saying, 'The likelihood of you getting back on that is grim; you are going to have to go through all the hurdles you went through—the year assessments, the medical assessments and all the hurdles that you went through previously—to get back onto it.' So there is no empathy from this government body. If there were a safety net or an assurance—'Go on, and if you can keep going for two years and you can get into the mainstream, great, but if at any time in that two-year period you fall off then just come into the office and we'll start you off as if it were yesterday'—that would be something which would assist them. The employers tell me that they want some constant monitoring. They do not want the administrative overheads. They do not want it any more complex to bring this person on than starting a regular worker. That is where things like group training, which I also am involved with, come into play. They handle all of the administrative side of things and effectively send the employer a bill once a fortnight.

The employer then has somebody they can walk in to, bang their fist on the table if things are going wrong and say: 'What can you do about it? How can we fix this? How can we work together?' You have sympathetic employment, you have a structure in place to support the person and, after a period of time, you can ease off some of those support mechanisms so the person tends to run quite freely by themselves and they become a productive worker. It does not mean to say that the wheels do not occasionally still fall off somewhere down the track, but the mechanism is then there for you to come back to the group training organisation and say, 'Can we just go back and help us along a little bit.' We can start all over again or go back to where it was working.

One of the things that I have come across is the schools are very supportive, but we still get a large number of kids coming out of the school and into our programs. When we ask them, 'What year was the highest level you went to at school?' They say, 'Year 12'. But when we want them to fill in a simple form, they cannot write. Sometimes they can get their name written but it is illegible. How they have managed to get through to year 12 appears to be through a non-literacy and numeracy stream.

The literacy and numeracy issue is a major one. We have a program going on at the moment where we are placing some Indigenous people at the mine here at Henry Walker. Out of the group of 22 we started with, eight of those failed a year 7 assessment for literacy and numeracy. They are all adults. Henry Walker were empathetic as their employer. They were going to take them. These people are physically strong. Mentally, they were stable. Drugs and alcohol were an issue but we went through a program to wean them off with regular monitoring. Needless to say there was no funding for that. Every time you send somebody for a drug and alcohol test, somebody has to pay for it and there is just no money. We had the employer there but the literacy and numeracy was not there so the employer said, 'If they cannot read the safety signs then we cannot have them out here.'

CHAIR: If there are other points then we can raise them during the questions. That was a great opening statement. Obviously you have had a lot of experience in this area.

Mr Velt : I have been with the Job Network since it started and have my own job recruitment agency. The current iteration of the Disability Employment Services has become very much an employment focused program, having rewards once employment outcomes are achieved. My primary role there is to develop strategies that take our staff and jobseekers through to that end. To break it down to its simplest form, we build strategies to engage our clients to start our program, Disability Employment Services. We develop internal strategies to make sure that the assessments from Centrelink are correct, first and foremost, and progress people to employment. Our ultimate goal is to get people into work and have them sustain the employment so we can achieve outcomes and they can eventually achieve independence. If we cannot do that we have to at least be progressing people towards that end. Our case loads are made up of people that are working towards that. And some people in the current contract probably will not achieve employment in the current contract. We nevertheless work towards pointing them in that direction.

We also have to define our own internal placement strategies for certain employers. It is not that dissimilar to what Kevin was talking about—really making sure that we look at our employers for what they require. Certainly for disability, the skills shortage market presents us with an opportunity to put clients forward that employers would typically overlook. But, also, we are very mindful of the fact that we need to employ wage subsidies and cross-funding to get clients the opportunities that they would otherwise not have. Rarely, but they are out there, there are some employers that will also engage in the corporate social responsibility aspect too, which certainly provides us with opportunities.

As to the next phase, other than placing people into work, we look at it as part of a continuum that in a perfect world goes from engagement, assessment, progression, placement then ongoing support and retention. The retention and ongoing support has its own unique issues, I suppose, under the current contract. But it is not that removed from the Job Network anyway, given the degree of difficulty with some of the Job Network clients, particularly for mental health. The first four weeks of employment is always the most rocky and it involves the stabilisation of people that might have episodic conditions. It is never one-size-fits-all for people with mental health.

The major component of mental health that makes up our case load is anxiety and depression—very episodic in its nature. About 70 per cent of our mental health target clients have anxiety and depression as their primary mental health condition. They are the current statistics on our system and that is under the DEEWR system. That is not including those clients that may have that as a secondary condition, as a result of a disability or a disadvantage, like drug and alcohol. It could be anything. But there is that co-morbidity issue, which is very rife within the service. Within the context of the employment services market, we see ourselves as the anchor. It is that one-to-one support, providing an anchor for the person with a disability or a mental health condition to come back if things go astray at the workplace. It is up to us to develop the supports around the job seeker. Ideally, in a perfect world, developing the natural supports the job seeker can engage in and having them take themselves to independence is the ideal scenario, but obviously that is not going to work with everyone.

Tracy will confirm this, having recent hands on experience, but the system is very fractured. We have clients referred to us from Centrelink that undergo a job capacity assessment. Job capacity assessment is often undertaken by someone without qualifications—it is very structured in its approach, so it lacks the ability to tailor around the individual. It might be a little bit deficient in that way. Often our assessment process has to compensate for mistakes that were made in the job capacity assessment. People come to us with benchmark hours actually defined, and basically what that says is the hours that have been assessed that a person can work after our intervention. This is future capacity that they come to us with, and we work towards achieving those hours in the workplace. It ranges from eight to fifteen, to thirty-plus hours. For those people that may be on a disability support pension that have an eight-hour benchmark, if they receive work their pension is not going to be jeopardised by that so our goal is to just work within those confines of the assessed benchmark. Obviously, that presents opportunities for us to fully fund someone's employment. Essentially, a lot of the stats that are provided to us by the department and otherwise, relating to three-month outcomes, 26-week outcomes and ongoing support, are about cognitive based therapy of employment. Once you get past three months employment, statistically you are on your way, and once you get past 26 weeks you are very much on your way. So the stats often mirror the behaviours and vice versa.

Notwithstanding that, I really feel, from my perspective at least, that employment services are the anchor. It is a very fractured environment that we are working with. If we get people to present to mental health professionals within the community, community services, there is often a very long waiting list. The episodic nature of the mental health condition means that people can go off the rails and disappear, and failure-to-attend rates are quite high in that respect. Again, it is up to us to pull them back in and try the process again. So it is not the most efficient way of undertaking business.

One of the key elements of our service is the employment pathway plan. We assess a person and look at the barriers to employment—through a person-centred approach, appreciating that a mental health condition is not something that we are going to cure in our service but it is something that we need to manage and work around. So the person-centred approach that we apply is basically looking at what sort of condition management approach we need to employ to have that person stabilised and productive. Essentially, going back to that anchor, we are constantly there to draw upon for resources to bring the job seeker or client back into the workplace. But, in order to do that, the client enters into what is called an employment pathway plan—an EPP for short; there are many acronyms in the service, as you are well aware. Certainly, the 'no wrong door' approach is something that we would be very much interested in exploring with respect to—if we are referring to professionals—drawing upon that 'work first' approach. A mental health management plan would be something that would, I think, work really well with Centrelink and us and other providers, so we have got a common thread by which we can actually work with people and move them forward.

CHAIR: Absolutely. Excellent. Was there anything you would like to add, Tracy?

Ms Wilson : You mentioned earlier, Amanda, early interventions. One of the things that Interwork do is work closely with trade school brokers to identify some of those kids that are disengaging from school around the year 10 level, presenting with things like anger management issues, bullying, depression, anxiety, peer pressure—and we are coming in to try to help with that transition out of the school environment into work by accommodating a placement for a year, which obviously helps, with them gaining some points within that process. It is not just employment; it is a holistic thing. We get the job capacity assessment and it has got a broad overview of what needs to happen, but it is not exactly like that. Sometimes we need to be advocates in the workplace, depending on what the situation is, so—going on from what Garry said about it being very episodic in its nature—we rely a lot on disclosure and sometimes that does not happen, which causes a bit of an issue in terms of how we provide our support. That could be helped by things like having a mental health management plan in place, if one exists, where all agencies are working together and in the same direction, so the client is not confused by the whole process of having a range of different agencies involved. Sometimes that causes enough anxiety in itself to have that regression happen.

A lot of the insight is that they do not have good insight into their condition, so I think that comes down to education of their condition. A lot of reporting back to me is that I have been diagnosed with this and that this is what I have to take, but there is no real education about how this may or may not impact. I think, if you are diagnosed with depression, then you are put into a category that is possibly extreme, but sometimes it is just secondary to other grief and loss issues and you need time to recuperate and get things straight. It does not necessarily mean that you need to have the focus on the depression; you just need a strategy in place of how you are going to accommodate that in the direction that we are going, which is employment placement.

CHAIR: We are running out of time a little bit, but I might ask a quick question and get everyone to limit themselves to one question and get a response from both sides. Kevin, you spoke about making this an option that employers want to take up and some the difficulties around that. Tracy, you spoke about advocacy for the client. How do both of your organisations manage making it an attractive option for employers while at the same time making sure that the client is advocated for? We have heard that come up. It is a bit of a conflict at times for organisations, and organisations have managed it in different ways—making sure that the employer feels there is someone to call when they have a problem and also making the client feel that they have someone that is there for them and will advocate for them. I would be interested to hear both of your perspectives on that.

Mr Rogan : From our perspective, probably the first thing is that we care; we do not just do it as a job. We engage the employer, as I said, at the CEO level, and once that is done you are halfway there. We then take the person on and do some pretraining, usually under a contract of training. If we were going to put them in the mine, we might provide them with a Certificate II in Metalliferous Mining Operations, which we provide—we train—so the employer does not have an overhead there at all. That means that the person we are putting out there has already overcome some of the barriers that the employer was seeing as a problem.

We then manage the dollars-and-cents side of things. We have had the employer agree that they will pay the wage, and we then manage that through a group training system; all the employer has to worry about is that they pay the bill each fortnight. So all the OHS stuff is done, all the training stuff is done, all the PPE stuff is done—that person has become job ready.

In cases where we have done it with major employers such as BHP Billiton, which we work very closely with up at Roxby Downs, we have put the mentoring program in place—the Males in Black—and we are about to start a pilot program at the Henry Walker Eltin mine. We will have an officer who will be available for both the employer and the employee 24/7. They can call, and they will be able to address any issues as they happen in a timely manner—I am talking within the hour—and that is really important to the employer, because they do not want to know tomorrow or the next day. Does that help?

CHAIR: Yes, it really does. Do you have a response to that, Garry or Tracy? How do you be responsive to both the employer side and the client's needs if problems arise?

Mr Velt : I guess Tracy could provide the detail. The nondisclosure issue that Tracy was talking about really shows that jobseekers can often get to the placement but then come back to us quite regularly if they are not disclosing, so that I think it is really important that we broker relationships with employers, and often we can intervene if we have a very strong relationship. Correct me if I am wrong, Tracy, but I think it is not usually a relationship of best candidate for what the employer considers the best role that they have at a particular point in time and they want it filled 'yesterday'. We are incredibly mindful that we are competing against Job Services Australia, who arguably have candidates who are more job ready, so it is very important for us to have a very strong relationship with the employer. This contract certainly forces us to do that. I think it is something that industry has been slow to grasp. If I were to put one, most important, point, that would be the one. It is coming back to that anchor again, constantly, if an episode takes place.

Ms Wilson : If we are talking relationships with Career Employment, I do not work very closely with Kevin, but I have in the past with his counterpart to identify needs. It is about building relationships so that communications are open and we are all seen to be working in the same direction: supporting the client and the employer in the workplace. That is predominantly what my role as a business development officer is: building those strong relationships with a clear understanding of people's limitations as well. Sometimes it is not about the mainstream position, it is about creating something and thinking outside of the square to create a position, working closely with Career Employment Group to identify some of those opportunities that are not necessarily advertised positions or seen to be full-time positions, identifying what the employer needs and then coming in and being able to fill that gap for the employer.

Mr RAMSEY: This question probably goes to Garry and Tracy. Kevin raised the issue of the disincentive for people to get off DSP and have a go at employment, because it is so darn hard to get back on the thing. That is something that every member of this panel would come across in their electorate, and it is something I quite often talk to people about. Given that by the time you are dealing with clients, who presumably are looking for work, they have worked out in their head: 'I am going to get off this DSP; I am going to get to work,' is that really an issue to you? Do you see that people are drawing back and saying: 'No, I'm are not going to take that step now,' or are they committed to the process at the point you get them?

Mr Velt : I have some figures on the number of people that we work with who are on disability support pension. Just quickly, most of our clients are mutual obligation clients. Disability support pension people are voluntary in the process. The service is withdrawn for noncompliance; it does not affect their payments or anything like that. About 70 per cent of our clients are mutual obligation clients, which means they receive some form of payment that requires them to be either job seeking or moving towards employment. Ultimately, they will be affected because of the nature of the payment they are receiving. I know, conceptually, people on a disability support pension have in the back of their mind: 'I am not going to go down this path, because it is going to affect my payments in one way or another.' Depending on their benchmark hours, eight hours work will not affect their disability support pension, so it is about us educating them in that respect.

Mr RAMSEY: Then you also have a group of clients who you really want to take that next step—to get over 15 hours and then, hopefully, fully engage in the workforce.

Mr Velt : Absolutely.

Mr RAMSEY: That is the ultimate aim.

Mr Velt : Yes. The one great thing about Disability Employment Services is that it has the option of ongoing support. If a person is eligible and it is required we can maintain a relationship with the job seeker, or the candidate. They are not a job seeker at that point; they are a client because they already have a job. We can maintain a relationship and look at improving their capacity through training or whatever. Generally, if their condition abates to the point where they can increase their hours we can constantly broker with employers beyond the life of the outcome time frame.

Mr SYMON: Mr Rogan, my question comes back to what we were speaking about with the previous witnesses, which was the literacy and numeracy of kids coming out of school. What is it that you are able to provide them as a service that makes them a chance of being employable that they were not able to get whilst at school?

Mr Rogan : In a nutshell, we offer an alternative training delivery methodology. If they cannot read or write—I will give you an example. We have just done a program at Nepabunna with the Adnyamathanha people. The literacy level of some of the people there was poor, and we were putting them through a certificate II in horticulture. They all successfully got through. They were excellent; they knew the stuff, but they were told it. They then answered—they gave the reply, because they can all speak quite good English, but they just cannot write. So using that alternative delivery methodology works. The problem is that it is a bit time consuming. If you do not have somebody who cares or wants to use that, it is a barrier.

On a local level we have people who are physically fit, available and able to work in OneSteel, but to work in OneSteel you need to have what is called an ASCO pass. It is a safety pass. If you have somebody who comes from China, they cannot work at OneSteel because they cannot read and write English, but they are a pressure vessel welder and they need to be working down there, so OneSteel will help them through the process to get them onto the site to do it. But, if you have somebody who comes from Whyalla who has a literacy and numeracy problem, there is no help for them—but they could be helped if the same alternative delivery methodology was used.

Mr SYMON: Is that because OneSteel have a great demand for people with certain skills, but in the semiskilled or the unskilled there is a wider field to choose from?

Mr Rogan : Yes. If you are trying to compete as a person with a mental disability in an open market, your resume gets put to the bottom of the pile every single time. That is where you have to engage. You have to have an alternative engagement strategy with the CEO. If you have not, you are wasting—

CHAIR: Deb, you have one quick question?

Ms O'NEILL: There is never a quick question; there is more that we want to ask.

CHAIR: Just one.

Ms O'NEILL: This has come up in a lot of sites where the job capacity assessment has been undertaken by Centrelink. We have had evidence in the past that it has come down through a telephone interview and not a visual interview. People have been classified. They come into job service providers like yours, incorrectly classified. What do you do when they arrive and you say: 'There's no way that this 30-hour obligation is possible; they're in the wrong stream'? How do you manage that, and how often is that a problem?

Mr Velt : I do not know how often it is a problem at each particular site, but it is enough to be troublesome. Typically, if you think about the engagement process, people are coming in that we have not engaged before and we have not seen before, so it usually happens at that point where we undertake our own assessment. Given the episodic nature of a lot of the conditions that we are talking about, some person might present at Centrelink, and Centrelink have very much a compliance framework or banner that hangs over their heads, so people can be quite compliant at a Centrelink meeting and then start divulging a lot more information with us, given the sorts of roles that we have. But—

Ms O'NEILL: Are your interviews face to face?

Mr Velt : Definitely face to face, yes. If we have outreach, we go and meet the people in the regions. We cover the whole Eyre Peninsula through outreach services. That is also with our Port Lincoln-Ceduna employment services area. It is really defined within employment services areas. Some employment services areas present more challenges than others. It might be the nature of how the internal Centrelink policies are ascribed through the process—for example, in Centrelinks in northern Adelaide, we have a very high vulnerable population. Often the terms of the contract might be that, if a person constantly does not attend and we need to re-engage that person, we have to notify Centrelink of a potential breach in the compliance regime. They are invariably overturned, particularly for our service, because the clients are vulnerable, so that creates a whole raft of resource issues for us. With the best intentions, sometimes it just does not pan out in practice.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for coming here today. I think both organisations have provided the committee with a wealth of information and highlighted some of the important barriers but also some of the ways that you are getting over that, including a relationship with the CEO and a relationship with the employers and the clients. I think that has been incredibly helpful, but it has also highlighted to us some of the inflexibilities in the system that are making your jobs a bit difficult. I appreciate that very much, and I know the committee appreciates it as well.

If there is any extra information you would like to provide the committee, anything you would like to raise, you are able to send that through the secretariat. We are hoping to table a report around the end of the year. It is not a definite time frame at the moment, but certainly we will keep you informed along the way. You will also be sent a copy of your transcript of evidence to which you can make corrections of grammar and fact. Thank you again for coming today.