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Trial could be game changer for jobseekers with disability

08:00am March 28 2023

Nick and his support dog Mipha at work at Australian Spatial Analytics. (Kim Kirkcaldie)

Nick can count only two times that Mipha has not been by his side in almost five years since she was a puppy small enough to fit in his hand.

“I don't leave the house without her,” he says of the dog, named after a healing character from the video game Legend of Zelda, who provides him with essential psychological support. 

They’ve been through a lot together, particularly when his small personal training business in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs collapsed at the start of the pandemic, and he’s been out of a job since. 

“Being a large, tattooed man, being neurodiverse, with a dog, and unemployed, it was a bit rough trying to find a place to live,” he says. 

In November, however, things started to look up, when Nick scored a job interview with Australian Spatial Analytics. 

“I didn't want to work anywhere that I couldn't take Mipha,” says Nick, who has only recently been able to afford a specialist assessment, which found he has level two autistic spectrum disorder, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from a difficult childhood. 

“And the first thing they said is, ‘If she makes you feel more comfortable then bring her in’. She came in for that first interview, and she's come in to work with me every day since.”  

Australian Spatial Analytics – or ASA – is a social enterprise, set up three years ago with a mission of hiring neurodiverse people to offer data analytics services for businesses and governments. 

“Spatial and data analytics are now needed in every industry and we believe neurodiverse people offer an advantage in the big-data economy,” ASA’s chief executive Geoff Smith says.

Almost 80 per cent of ASA’s staff of around 100 are neurodiverse, with around 6 in 10 on the autism spectrum – a lifelong condition estimated to affect around 1 in 70 Australians, often characterised by difficulty in social interactions. Others in the team are on the attention deficit hyperactivity disorder spectrum, or have mental health or bipolar needs, says Smith named a Westpac Social Change Fellow last year. 

Geoffrey Smith, left, chief executive of Australian Spatial Analytics, with employee Chris Taylor. (Peter Cramer)

ASA’s growing list of clients sees team members involved in large projects such as geo-mapping for the NBN fibre optic cable network rollout, digital asset transformation for big infrastructure projects including electrical distribution, road and rail networks, and agricultural mapping projects. Having already expanded from its Brisbane base by adding offices in Melbourne and Cairns, Smith expects demand for ASA’s services will see a fourth office open later this year, likely in New South Wales. 

While Nick had no experience in geospatial mapping, he picked up the software skills quickly with support from his team, and says he can finally see a career.    

“It's very different to a lot of other places,” Nick says. 

“It has a very relaxed kind of vibe. You can be on your phone for a couple of minutes and no-one minds so long as the work gets done. If you have a problem, you voice it and it will get dealt with. 

“They want you to be comfortable. They want people to succeed, to want to come to work.”  

It’s no coincidence Nick feels this way, given ASA’s working environment is tailor-made to support neurodiverse people. 

It’s these characteristics that have seen ASA chosen, among 15 social enterprises, to participate in a pioneering federal government trial underway, that could be a game changer for jobseekers experiencing disadvantage and for the social enterprise sector.

The three-year $3.8 million “payment by outcomes” trial, co-designed by social enterprise incubator White Box Enterprises and the Department of Social Services, aims to explore the effectiveness of jobs-focused social enterprises in delivering long-term employment for people with disability.

It’s being conducted in parallel with the government’s broader overhaul of the current Disability Employment Services program – which has around 100 open market services providers and 280,000 registered job search participants – after it was found to deliver "unclear value-for-money” given its “soft growth in employment outcomes” in a government-commissioned review in 2020.    

As part of the trial, when each person employed and paid a full award wage by participating social enterprises reaches milestones of 6, 12 and 18 months, the business will receive a payment that recognises the cost of supporting them in the workplace. 

“This is different from the status quo, in which social enterprises – who are not in it for the riches but because of their commitment to the most marginalised individuals – receive no direct government support for job outcomes,” says Angharad Lubbock, who is leading the trial for White Box Enterprises.

Angharad Lubbock, White Box Enterprises’ Payment by Outcomes Trial Lead. (Supplied

She says this compares to Disability Employment Service providers, who receive payments sooner for registering jobseekers and placing them in work, although only about one in five are still in work 12 months later because they’re often placed in hard-to-fill jobs, without tailored support. 

“It’s been a bug-bear for those of us championing social enterprise that job service providers get paid for what government knows are poor overall success rates, while social enterprises do the heavy lifting but receive none of the recognition or funding, despite taking on all the ongoing costs of work-readiness and success over much longer timeframes,” Lubbock says. 

Wraparound services include support such as counsellors, translators, specialist trainers and modified work environments. 

“These extra costs… represent a fraction of the money that government saves by people moving off long-term welfare and into tax paying employment, not to mention all of the associated health and happiness benefits for the individual and their friends and family,” Lubbock says.  

“The trial will be the first time the federal government gathers its own data on the outstanding outcomes being achieved by social enterprises across Australia.” 

Since the trial commenced in July 2022, 75 people with a disability, who had previously been out of work for at least nine months in the last year, have been employed and earning a full award wage at one of the participating social enterprises, which include ASA, Ability Works, Hotel Etico, Jigsaw, STREAT, YMCA Rebuild and others.  

Among them, 93 per cent have remained in work earning at least $500 per fortnight, reflecting the typically high retention rates and meaningful earning capacity achieved by social enterprises, says Lubbock.  

Geoff Smith says for ASA, it's “a no-brainer, because we have such low turnover,” conceding that, having formerly been an executive in Disability Employment Services, his experience of seeing people shoe-horned into unsuitable vacancies saw him become “a bit of a renegade”, sparking his decision to lead ASA. 

“If we bring someone on at ASA, we won't under-employ them, they'll hit their benchmark hours, they'll be paid award wages. So therefore we're compensated for providing those wraparound services to support those vulnerable people so they won't fall out of work, which we currently subsidise through philanthropy, rather than through savings to the government,” Smith says.   

“The philosophical question is, should the middle man get paid so much in the DES, or should the actual business that takes them on get paid? That's what the PBO's trying to remedy.”

Introducing “payment by outcomes” for social enterprises has the potential to “radically change” the employment experience for long-term unemployed jobseekers, says Lubbock. 

It also improves the investment proposition of the social enterprise model for founders and impact investors, underpinning further growth potential in the sector thereby creating more sustainable job opportunities.   

“It sounds simple, we know it’s not. But it feels like we’re now a lot closer than we’ve been before.”

Australian Spatial Analytics is a Westpac Foundation grant recipient and Geoffrey Smith was awarded a Social Change Fellowship by Westpac Scholars Trust

Emma Foster is a freelance writer. Previously, she led Westpac Wire and was a key contributor until December 2022. Prior to joining Westpac in 2013, she spent almost 20 years in corporate affairs and investor relations, primarily in large financial services and consultancy firms, in Australia, UK and Europe. She is also a photographer and podcaster.

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