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Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers

KALA, Ms Lavanya, Policy Manager, Volunteering Australia

PICONE, Ms Adrienne, Chief Executive Officer, Volunteering Australia

van WOERKOM, Ms Diana, Managing Director, Australian Internships


Evidence from Ms Kala and Ms Picone was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Welcome. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you all?

Ms Kala : Yes.

Ms van Woerkom : Correct.

Ms Picone : Yes.

CHAIR: I now invite each of the organisations to make a short opening statement and then we will have question for you. Would you like to start, Ms Picone?

Ms Picone : Good morning, Chair and committee members. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and pay my respect to elders past, present and emerging. I also extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are here today. We are appearing in front of the committee today to emphasise that it is essential that volunteering is considered in all discussions about the future of work and workers, given the enormous impact the volunteering workforce makes in the areas of infrastructure, development, building social capacity and community cohesion and in assisting with the delivery of long-term innovation and agile service provision.

Volunteering Australia is the national peak body for volunteering. We're working to advance volunteering right across the Australian community. Volunteering is essential to Australia's national identity, with 5.8 million of us, or 31 per cent of the adult population, engaging in formal volunteering activities. Research indicates that volunteering yields are 450 per cent returned for every dollar invested. Nationally, this is an estimated annual economic and social contribution of $290 billion. Australian society is increasingly dependent on volunteering activities and programs, with volunteering extending to every sector of society. Volunteering is also critical in the delivery of the Australian government's priorities of building a strong and resilient community.

At Volunteering Australia, we define volunteering as time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain. Volunteering Australia stresses that volunteering has a number of benefits to the future of work and workers, and we aim to outline these for the committee today. Volunteering is also a preventative health measure, it increases economic participation and it is a pathway to employment. Volunteering also mitigates isolation and loneliness and increases social inclusion.

With the casualisation of the workforce, automation, and increasing calls for digital literacy, there is a real need to think about how society adapts to the changing nature of work. There are serious issues about the lack of jobs available for many jobseekers, particularly younger and older jobseekers, and this is also an identified problem in rural and regional communities, with recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicating that there is only one job available for every 10 people looking for work. We reiterate that the value of volunteering is that it is an effective way to engage with society. It acts as a pathway to gainful employment, encourages economic participation, builds work skills, and keeps people healthy and active.

Volunteering Australia emphasises that there must be recognition of the value of Australia's voluntary contributions and an assurance that this societal input is equal to that of paid workers. We thank the committee for their time today and look forward to working constructively with the government on finding innovative solutions to the future of work in Australia.

CHAIR: Thank you. Ms van Woerkom, would you like to make an opening statement?

Ms van Woerkom : I was asked to provide a little bit of information about what we do. We've been arranging internship programs for international students and recent graduates for 20 years. The role of the internship program provider is often not realised outside the international education industry; it provides quality monitoring and management of internship programs. Our company, AI, arranges internships in all fields. We currently have over 1,300 active interns from over 80 countries, contributing to an annual export revenue of about $12.8 million. We work in cooperation with universities both onshore and offshore. We provide internship programs to international students who are existing students and also to recent graduates. It has to be aligned to their academic credit. The visa options we offer under sponsorship are the training visas subclass 407 and the temporary activity 408 visa.

Generally, the purposes of the internship programs for the internationals coming into Australia and going into the Australian workplace are internships for academic credit and internships for cultural exchange and internationalisation. Often they're funded by offshore government agencies, which see the abroad experience as an investment in export development, through globalisation of their young professionals. We also have the other cohort of students who come in for career development and to enhance their career opportunities.

I wanted to speak a little about the structure of the programs, because although many people speak about internships the definition of an internship varies. We promote a structure of a training program that is very closely monitored. There is an admissions process—we believe that we work with global best practice, and we participate in the global internship conferences and global internship events—but the students have to demonstrate academic success and have evidence of academic relevance. Students have to have supporting documents from universities and/or government agencies. We obviously do video interviews, live interviews and complete reference and academic checks. We assess the financial viability of the students and their ability to participate in the program. If they're accepted into the program and welcomed into Australia, a very important part of making sure the training is structured in the workplace is to conduct a skills audit and assess the skills and the gaps that students have currently and what training is required in the workplace. Once we have that, we develop a training program with a suitable host organisation. There's a training agreement and training plans in place which define the training and the responsibilities of the supervisor, the student-cum-intern—we refer to them as the intern—and us as the program provider, and they all have to accept that we have to audit and have reports submitted to ensure compliance with the training.

Obviously for internationals going into a workplace, and probably also for Australians going into a workplace, it's very necessary for them to do an orientation and prepare them for the Australian workplace and ensure a visa, housing and so forth. A big part of the internship and ensuring the quality is that we have people monitoring both the student or intern and the workplace supervisor. You could have noncompliance for training and workplace from either party, so they have to submit weekly learning plans and demonstrate evidence of what they're doing. It has to be signed off by both parties, and that's our way—generally it's an acceptable way—of making sure that there is compliance.

We, as a provider with internationals, are responsible for organising social events and so forth. We also do career blogs and all those technology based things on a weekly basis on how to succeed in the workplace and so forth. We have three formal points for feedback, initially in the first two weeks—because generally you can very quickly identify if there's noncompliance by any party—and then midway and final feedback, and the feedback's obtained from both parties, the intern and the supervisor. As a general approach to best practice, we believe that everything should be recorded, so all communication and everything should be recorded in a database, and we have a lot of systems and processes to ensure compliance.

Our general feedback from industry—it's no new news—is that industry often feel the classroom skills are not current and totally aligned to industry, because things are moving so fast. So I think there's a large demand for internships, but even more to make sure that people have the soft skills and what's necessary in the workplace.

We've seen a greater increase in the number of students in the tech based fields coming through, and it's very interesting for us to note that a lot of the companies now have a lot of their orientation and onboarding done online, through an online process. As I said—everyone's probably aware of this—these are just things that we're seeing very often in a workplace, and it extends to training and assessment in the workplace. Although they have to have supervisors, and the training is required in the workplace, often there's an online component for them to take ownership and responsibility for recording things in online systems.

Other than that, we see the demand very much linked to internationalisation and a way of young people getting better prepared for the workplace which is no longer local; it's much more global. I hope that gives you a little bit of insight into our program and what's happening with international internships.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. I might start with you, Ms van Woerkom. Certainly something that we've heard throughout this inquiry is the need to ensure that younger people—whether they be university graduates, VET graduates or straight out of school—gain employment experience or practical experience that assists them to get a job and meet employer expectations. So I don't think there's any doubt about the benefits of that. You'd obviously be familiar with some of the concerns that are expressed around the potential for exploitation of interns, and I suppose the same risks can arise in relation to volunteers—I'm looking at Ms Picone as I say that. How do we get that balance right in getting people the experience that is useful for them but not seeing them simply used as a free labour source for employers who don't want to pay people?

Ms van Woerkom : Well, it's not meant to be employment; it's meant to be training in a workplace. I think the reason that people come to us offshore is that they want a neutral body to monitor both their students and the companies, and I think that's critical. I think that to expect people will go into a workplace and the training's going to occur when there's no training agreement in place and there's no monitoring—it would be lovely to believe those sorts of things are going to happen, but I believe that there needs to be a lot more structure surrounding internships. An internship is a training experience and it's not employment. We have some universities offshore that will not allow their students to be paid, because there's an assumption of, 'If you're an employee, I can get you to run and get tea and coffee,' and that there are no projects or structured learning in the workplace. A lot recognise that an internship is like the final step in an education cycle; it's getting to practice and learn how to do what you need to do and how to succeed in industry. So my answer would be: very much about structure and supervision.

CHAIR: Obviously there are a range of stakeholders with an interest in this issue. There are some who have said that internships are okay if they're contributing towards an education qualification. For instance, it's one thing if a particular qualification requires an internship or a period of work experience but if someone is simply taking up an option to work in a firm for little or no pay, that's obviously a different matter altogether. You're saying that you think structure is one of the things that's required to make sure people aren't exploited. Is there anything in the form of changes to legislation or policy that we should look at recommending to make sure that people are protected?

Ms van Woerkom : I think that we absolutely need to have evidence that there is training happening in a workplace rather than an assumption that, because you call it an internship, there is training. You need to have evidence that the training's aligned to the gaps for the person who's completing the internship. Obviously there are different levels of supervision. For us, we've been in the industry for 20 years; that's our expertise. All we do is develop training to meet the academic requirements or the professional requirements. I don't necessarily think you can assume, because of the internships for academic credit, that it is valuable training in a workplace. That's my view. I've seen lots of examples where students go into a workplace and there's little or no training, no structure and no supervision. I'm not saying it always happens but it certainly does happen. The students just run around and make tea and coffee and do errands for whoever is supervising. That's not my classification of an internship.

The other thing is: I don't think an internship should be available only to students, because there are a lot of undergraduate degrees and degrees where they get no practical experience. For example, we have internationals who know that, if they want to participate in the global workplace, they need to get some experience. It doesn't mean they need to spend six months in a company running around making tea and coffee but, if they get an international experience where they're training and learning about their field, it does mean it's going to increase their career opportunities. I think that that demand is going to be there, particularly in areas where they haven't had practical experience during their studies.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator PATRICK: I also ask, Ms van Woerkom—

Ms van Woerkom : 'Diana' is easier!

Senator PATRICK: Okay! Looking at your organisation, I presume it's a private company?

Ms van Woerkom : It is.

Senator PATRICK: Is it funded by industry or universities?

Ms van Woerkom : It varies. Sometimes it's through government agencies offshore. Most of you are probably aware of the Brazil Initiative, which happened a few years ago—I use that as an example—where Brazil decided to internationalise their STEM students. They sent students abroad for study and internships but the internships were a compulsory requirement of that. They believed it was building linkages offshore, increasing the capacity of their STEM based students and so forth. That's one example. But there are many examples where government agencies will put funding in for students to intern abroad. Often universities will fund or partially fund students or give scholarships to students. In some universities, they'll pick the top students and send them abroad for an internship. Again, they give academic credit but it's also about internationalising young people. Other times it'll be the intern's parents who fund a program. Universities onshore will also do that as part of their international programs.

Senator PATRICK: In the context of Australia's international training programs, 1,100 to 1,200 interns doesn't seem much. I think in South Australia we have something like 35,000 students per annum.

Ms van Woerkom : That's 1,100 to 1,200 that are current in our system at the moment. We're only one program provider, and I think you'd find there are a lot of internships being arranged by other program providers.

Senator PATRICK: Okay, so you're just a small part of a niche industry.

Ms van Woerkom : The universities also sometimes arrange the internships. Sometimes they outsource them to us. If the students are coming in and not completing study and an internship, that's a completely separate thing, but there would be thousands of students each year who complete internships.

Senator PATRICK: Do you have difficulties getting appropriate visas? It's the 407 visa, isn't it?

Ms van Woerkom : The 407 and 408 visas. We've had challenges with visas for 20 years, because the changes continue. But we have the 407 and 408 visas available now.

Senator PATRICK: Do you have instances where someone does an internship and then may well end up being offered a job but can't get the right visa—I think it's the 485 visa—at the end of it?

Ms van Woerkom : That's not something we promote. We've had very few of our students convert to employment in Australia. One of the things right from the onset is that our focus wasn't to take students into employment; it was about training in the workplace. So it's not an issue that we've really had to deal with.

Senator PATRICK: Okay. Switching now to Ms Picone, you say that you require some investment in order to properly organise and leverage off the work the volunteers do. What sort of investment do you say is required?

Ms Picone : Volunteering Australia is part of a national network, and between us we provide an infrastructure that supports and underpins safe and effective volunteering. As part of that network, there are seven state and territory peak bodies, and then we have 52 volunteering support services across the country. Their role is to help people find volunteer roles when they need it. They help organisations to look after their volunteers and make sure they've got the volunteer workforce that they actually need.

I think the really important thing to remember is that, although people who volunteer donate their time for free, it's not free to engage volunteers. It actually costs, and it does require investment. We're talking about managing a workforce similar to a paid workforce. We need somebody who's going to look after that workforce. We need to make sure that we train our volunteers effectively, that they're safe and that they have the skills that they need to really contribute to service delivery. So what we're saying is, again, that volunteering doesn't come for free. Although people give their time for free, it does require investment.

Senator PATRICK: I seem to recall from past conversations with you that you only have a very limited number of FTE personnel in your organisation, don't you?

Ms Picone : Yes, we're tiny: 3.2 FTEs. There's obviously a huge role that we play, in terms of being the voice of the volunteer sector or the volunteer workforce across Australia, on, yes, a very limited workforce.

Senator PATRICK: So that's obviously one area where you see some investment could help.

Ms Picone : Absolutely.

Senator PATRICK: In terms of the changing nature of volunteer work, this committee's heard lots of evidence about changing roles into the future. Do you experience a similar sort of phenomenon in volunteering, or is it a consistent sort of work?

Ms Picone : I think one of the things that we are finding is that often, in the past, people may have been happy to contribute week in, week out, for five, 10 or more years, and now people may want to contribute in a more episodic way. So they may want to contribute to a project, for example. They may want to volunteer their time virtually, from the privacy of their own home. They may want to do more short-term volunteering where they can move in and out of an organisation, so they may not necessarily want to give that bulk amount of time. Of course, many people do.

I think the other thing that we're seeing is that the motivation for people to want to volunteer is really different. I think in the past we've seen volunteering very much as altruistic, people doing good for the community. Of course, that's a really important part of people giving time, but more and more we are seeing that people want to volunteer because they want to actually get some work experience. They want to get their foot in the door. They want to build their networks and make some friends within the workplace so that, when those opportunities come up, they're in the right place at the right time. But more and more employers are telling us that volunteering on a CV really makes a difference when they're looking for new staff.

Senator PATRICK: So you're saying that some of your customers are actually younger people trying to transition from school or TAFE or, indeed, university?

Ms Picone : Absolutely, and wanting to get that edge—wanting to get some experience behind them that really will help them to move into that next phase of their life.

Senator PATRICK: So, in some sense—

Ms Kala : Sorry—can I jump in? I just wanted to mention that Volunteering Australia also has an online initiative. It's called GoVolunteer. It's a national database which can assist by matching people to an appropriate volunteering opportunity. It has been operating for a decade or so. In the 2016-17 financial year we had over half a million volunteers visit the GoVolunteer website, and we had almost 40,000 EOIs delivered through the GoVolunteer website. I think that really goes to show what Adrienne was saying—that, essentially, we have a lot of people who are out there searching for a variety of different types of volunteer roles, because, basically, GoVolunteer allows us to host a whole range of different roles. It's also shifting because we're looking at different types of volunteering, away from the more traditional types of volunteering to those short-term episodic types, and virtual volunteering as well.

Senator PATRICK: So, in some sense, you're suggesting that your patronage is now different—that people really are using this as a hook to get into the next thing that they want to do, from an employment perspective?

Ms Picone : That has certainly been our experience, yes. With our volunteering support services, because they generally offer a service which is like a referral service—almost like the sort of service a job service agency would offer, but you can go in there and find a volunteer role and they help you to link to an organisation—what we're finding is that there are a lot of people that come along that are using volunteering as part of their Centrelink requirement and asking the volunteering support services to help them find a volunteer role. Those volunteering support services do that without the resources, and they certainly don't get compensated for that service. But we believe it's a really important way that volunteering support services can contribute to the workforce.

Senator PATRICK: How long do people stay in that volunteering role before they're employed? A supplementary question to that is: how many, in terms of percentages, actually manage to transition from that volunteering role into perhaps full-time employment?

Ms Picone : Unfortunately, I don't have statistics or research on that. A lot of our evidence is either anecdotal or something that we're doing as part of our consultation, but I don't have any raw data.

Senator PATRICK: So what's the anecdotal answer?

Ms Picone : So the question was?

Senator PATRICK: How long do people stay as a volunteer before moving on, and how many of them move on to other things or how many stay and, in effect, successfully use it as a bootstrap into a job in an area they want?

Ms Picone : Often what we hear is that people have volunteered for an organisation and the organisation says, 'We've lost our best volunteer. We're really happy for them, but it leaves a gap in our volunteer workforce that we now need to fill.' It is a very common story.

Senator PATRICK: Sorry—so you're saying that the employer loses the volunteer?

Ms Picone : Yes—into a paid role.

Ms Kala : Recently, we met with a stakeholder of ours and they told us that they had brought on a couple of volunteers who didn't have many work skills because they were recent migrants to the country and, essentially, the volunteer role was to help them to integrate into the community and build some skills. But—I think it was within a few short weeks or something like that—they had managed to find a paid position, and the volunteering had assisted with that because they were doing office work through their volunteer position. Through our definition of time willingly given, we also have strict criteria that you shouldn't ask a volunteer to volunteer for longer than 16 hours—that's just best practice—unless, of course, the volunteer opts to do so. So, that's a really great case study of where a volunteer came into an organisation, managed to build up some work skills and then went on to find a paid position out of that. That's one example of many.

Senator PATRICK: In some senses, the entity taking on the volunteer ends up expending effort and time on the person and then loses out. It just seems odd that they wouldn't transition into a job in the company that they were volunteering in.

Ms Picone : I guess it depends on whether employment opportunities are available.

Senator PATRICK: I'm just curious as to their motive.

Ms Kala : I think as well, though, that it's not always the case they would transition into a role within the organisation. The purpose of engaging a volunteer is not to replace a paid worker and give them what they would be doing. We're volunteering; you're not supposed to be replacing a paid worker and giving the volunteer that level of work. What we see with volunteering is that, if the volunteer were not to turn up one day, the organisation shouldn't fall apart. But, at the same time, the volunteers should still be able to build skills and gain that sense of worth, health and happiness, and build relationships—all the positive aspects that come with volunteering. If there were a paid position available then of course it'd be fantastic if they could transition into that role, but I don't think that losing them is necessarily a great loss.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Ms Picone, I've seen the recommendations you've made in your submission to the inquiry. You're funded by the federal government?

Ms Picone : We are. We're funded through the Department of Social Services, yes. The 52 volunteer resource centres are also funded through Social Services; it's just a different bucket of funding.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: This is an inquiry about future work; but you are talking about volunteering in a different way than I've ever understood volunteering. Volunteering, to me, was joining Apex, the Lions Club, the CWA or Meals on Wheels—things that people did because they wanted to contribute to their community and donate their time to help others. One of your recommendations is:

… Funding for Volunteering Support Services to place Mutual Obligation participants with Volunteer Involving Organisations

Is this the charter that the government funds you for these days—to be a conduit to employment rather than volunteering in the old way as I knew it?

Ms Picone : Part of our focus is to reset the way that we value volunteering and see its contribution within the community. Yes, in times gone past, we saw it more as about what volunteers gave rather than what volunteers got. I think we, more and more, need to start to revalue volunteers and see them as significant contributors socially and economically.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Who are the 'we' that need to value this? Volunteering was something you did. It was not for recognition or anything other than wanting to help your community, or to help the CWA provide drought services, or to help the Apex club paint the house of someone who was disadvantaged. Who are the 'we' that need to recognise volunteers? Who are 'we'?

Ms Picone : When I say 'we', I guess that it's a belief of Volunteering Australia—recognising that volunteering isn't just about people giving to the community; it's basically about people power. I think it's about people making a real difference in the community, whether that's in the environment, in the arts, in education, or in emergency services, and that volunteering, in and of itself, is a workforce. It isn't just people off there to the side doing good out there. And it's not just a workforce; it's the same as with all contributions: volunteers give, but they also get something in return. Part of what they get is maybe that feel-good feeling that makes them feel like they're doing a good thing in the community. But part of it also is they get to build their networks and get some work experience, and they often get their foot in the door and learn more about a particular industry.

Ms Kala : Can I also add to what Adrienne said in relation to that recommendation. Essentially what we're saying as well is that volunteering support services are already doing this; they're already across the country assisting in placing mutual-obligation participants with appropriate volunteer-involving organisations. Job service organisations—they are the ones who are receiving the funding to do this, but they come to the volunteering support services to assist with this transaction. Volunteering support services have to do this from within their own resources and staffing capacity. Many of them are underresourced and undercapacity and do this anyway. So I guess what we're saying is, if they're already doing it—I understand the argument that obviously volunteering, traditionally, was something that you did altruistically. But, given the shift and the evolution of volunteering, I think, as a society, we need to look at how we can better support volunteering in its entirety.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thanks for that. Mutual obligation really isn't volunteering. You've got to do that job otherwise you lose your welfare payments, so you could hardly call those people volunteers. Very often the groups they work with are volunteer groups. Who do you support? Do you support the volunteer group or the mutual-obligation participant?

Ms Picone : I agree with you; it's a very complex part of our work. When you've got a mutual obligation—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: It's not volunteering.

Ms Picone : obviously your free will, your willingness, is very limited, because, obviously, if you don't do that then you lose your benefit.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: But that's not volunteering.

Ms Picone : I guess the thing is that once you get into the volunteering-involving organisation you are a volunteer, and I don't think there should be different classes of volunteers depending on how they got into the organisation.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: But mutual-obligation participants are not volunteers.

Ms Picone : Once they get into the organisation, they are volunteers within the organisation. The mutual-obligation registered organisations are volunteering-involving organisations.

Ms Kala : The fact you can choose volunteering as one of your activity requirements as well suggests to us that, as a peak body, it's within our role to support these volunteers and to support the organisations that support them as well.

Ms Picone : As an example, we can talk about op shops. Many of our op shops across the country are staffed by volunteers. They're pretty much all staffed by volunteers, but many of those have come through mutual obligation. If we were to look at the op shop and say, 'You came from here and you came from mutual obligation, therefore, you're different'—once you're through the door, you're a volunteer like everyone else.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I'm not being critical of what you're doing—

Ms Picone : It's a different way of thinking.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: it's just that the whole concept of a volunteer society has changed. Obviously the federal government is funding you with this in mind. You're now really part of the transition-to-work arrangements rather than the old traditional because-you-wanted-to-help-society volunteer—and get a good feeling out of it, too; there's certainly that in it.

Ms Picone : There's absolutely that as well; we're not undermining that. I guess what we're saying is that—and anecdotally we know; I'm sure we've all experienced it—volunteering is a pathway to employment. It's about being in the right place at the right time, it's about getting skills for your CV and it's about building your networks.

What we don't know, because we haven't done the research—but we would welcome an opportunity to—is what that means. How much of a pathway to employment is it actually? What are the actual benefits of it? It would be a great opportunity for us to be able to do that research and really understand the potential impact that volunteering can have on the pathway to employment.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: One of your other recommendations is strategies to address systemic disadvantage prohibiting people from engaging with the labour market. What exactly does that mean? What are the strategies that you think need to be addressed?

Ms Picone : We're talking about people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds—migrants, new arrivals. We're talking about people from disadvantaged backgrounds who may be struggling to get their first job, because they don't understand how to act within a workplace, how to behave or what sort of skills you actually need. What we're saying is that this is an opportunity for people to actually get their first go at working in the workplace and building those skills on the resume.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you very much to Volunteering Australia for coming in—it actually sounds like two-thirds of your workforce were here today!—and also to Australian Internships for attending via teleconference.