Young people with disability great candidates to fill jobs during national labour shortage, advocates say

In a hi-vis shirt paired with a wide-brimmed hat, Nathan Tyrrell “puts his heart and soul” into his job of cleaning and washing trucks.

The 18-year-old, who lives with an intellectual disability, gained work experience at a central Queensland removalist business in April.

Three months later, the Rockhampton business put Mr Tyrrell on the books.

“It’s a good job to work here,” he said.

Working-age people with disability are twice as likely to be unemployed as those without disabilities, according to a 2022 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) report.

But disability advocates argue that, particularly given the national labour shortage, now is the time for the workforce to better reflect the Australian community.

How Nathan gained employment
As a senior schooling coordinator at Rockhampton Special School, Jo Swain’s main job is to prepare students for life after school by sourcing work experience at different businesses.

“The idea is to help support our kids [to] have something once they leave,” she said.

Chasing his love of trucks and following in the footsteps of his brothers, Mr Tyrrell told Ms Swain he wanted to work at the removalist business.

“We were able to literally suit a position to a child’s interest,” Ms Swain said.

“Right from the start, he just loved it.”

Before starting work experience in April, Ms Swain said Mr Tyrrell would struggle to control his behaviour at school.

“He was very energetic, always tearing around, getting into mischief and school was probably quite low down his list of interests,” she said.

“[Now] he’s a model student.”

Mr Tyrrell is paid for four hours on a Thursday and still enjoys work experience on a Friday.

“To be able to build his self-esteem, for him to just achieve — it’s huge,” Ms Swain said.

National labour shortage
Operations manager Jacque Gorman said she was initially unsure about providing work experience for Mr Tyrrell, but felt at ease after learning a school support worker would join him.

Mr Tyrrell has since proven himself an asset to the team of about 40 staff and now works independently.

“He just put his heart and soul into cleaning out the trucks. He does a wonderful job,” Ms Gorman said.

Like many Australian businesses, the company has a labour shortage.

“[It’s] terrible; we can’t get workers. See these five trucks behind us? We could work them, but we can’t get the staff,” she said.

Catherine McAlpine is the chief executive of Inclusion Australia, a national representative organisation for people with intellectual disability.

“While we have a national labour shortage, it’s no better time for employers to really have a go at employing people with disability and understanding what great employees they make,” she said.

Support for employers
The AIHW report says the unemployment rate of working-age people with disability has “increased in recent years” from about 8 to 10 per cent.

The report found one in four young people with disability are unemployed compared to less than one in 10, or 7.9 per cent, of older people with disability.

Ms McAlpine says young people with disability are particularly disadvantaged in the job market.

“It’s very hard for them to get the very first casual jobs that people often get at school as their first experience of employment,” Ms McAlpine said.

“Without those opportunities and without other opportunities as they leave school, they get left out of the employment market totally.”

Ms McAlpine says inaccessible online recruitment systems form one of many barriers.

“What we’d like to see change is employer attitudes,” she said.

She said employers could access support through external systems including the NDIS and Disability Employment Services to make their workplaces more accessible.

“It’s mainly about having people with and without disability working together and everyone getting paid equally for equal work,” Ms McAlpine said.

“We end up with everyone being able to participate in the economy, which means that people with disability don’t remain below the poverty line, which is just all too common.”

Grassroots action
Mr Tyrrell’s school holds an annual showcase to help senior students connect with local businesses that could offer them work experience, even for an hour or two a week.

After 15 years in the industry, Ms Swain said employers often overlooked students due to misconceptions and preconceived ideas about what it was like to employ a person with disability.

“The business stands to gain; it’s a win-win for both. They’re getting a job done that they maybe don’t have the time to get around to do,” Ms Swain said.

“The students are learning work skills, how to be in the community, how to be in the work environment, how to behave appropriately and how to dress appropriately.

“It takes the wider community to help raise these students — and all children.”