It was the year Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace from the presidency, Muhammad Ali reclaimed the world heavyweight boxing title, the song “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” topped the music charts, and Ernő Rubik invented the Rubik’s cube. It’s 1974 and it’s the last time Australia had an unemployment rate of 3.5%.

That’s right; it’s been 48 years since our unemployment rate was so low. To say it’s a tight labour market is an understatement. There are 480,000 job vacancies and 494,000 unemployed people. That’s almost one unemployed person per job and some economists say we’re at full employment.

So how do we include more people in the labour market? Like Rubik’s cube, it’s a puzzle we need to solve.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in 10 employed people with disability are underemployed and are twice as likely to be unemployed as those without disability.

We know that people with disability can find it particularly challenging to engage in employment. In addition, some people with disability may need specific arrangements to work, like additional days off or special equipment/modifications.

Many countries worldwide face the same problem. Based in Estonia, Eesti Töötukassa is a quasi-governmental organisation that helps unemployed people find jobs. Their Work Ability Reforms have succeeded in helping people with decreased work ability find suitable employment while also supporting employers.

One of the key changes was a new methodology for assessing work ability based on the premise that every person is unique and disabilities manifest in different ways. The five-step assessment considers physical and mental abilities and includes a doctor’s visit, application, expert opinion, decision, and paying an allowance or providing employment services.

The program also offers peer workers with a similar disability who provide emotional, social, and practical support. The peer worker shares their work experiences and encourages and motivates the client to find and maintain work.

In addition, employers who have employed someone with reduced work ability can access a support person to help the employee settle into work, carry out their duties, plan their work, and help with communication. The service can be provided for 12 months and may be used several times by the same employer.

As a result of the reforms, one in two people with disability assessed with functional ability to work found a job within 12 months. In addition, workforce participation for people with disability increased from 38% to 52%, and unemployment decreased from 34% to 24% over 10 years.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, disability unemployment rates have remained stagnant for decades. However, a recent speech by the Governor-General, David Hurley, gives us some hope: “The government will ensure the Australian Public Service (APS) becomes a model employer and an employer of choice, including—and especially— for First Nations people, and those living with disability.”

Perhaps the Rubik’s cube of Disability Employment Services (DES) will be solved when the new Australian Government announces its intentions for DES post June 2023. Despite challenges under the current model, we know that many DES providers are bringing innovation to this puzzle and making a meaningful difference to sustainable employment for people with disability.

Right now, there’s a golden opportunity for existing DES providers to use the current policy hiatus to trial further innovation. This helps inform the Government’s DES reforms via a strong evidence base as well as showcasing how international innovations may work in our markets.

To find out more, contact Prospert.