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.

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“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.

Nathan in the front of a truck, sitting in the drivers seat, steering wheel in front, wiping the dashboard.
Nathan Tyrrell, 18, has aspirations to continue paid employment after finishing school.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

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.”

Nathan and Jo sitting side by side, blurred out books in the foreground.
Jo Swain says many employers are hesitant to offer work experience to students with disability.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

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.

Jacque Gorman smiling, Gormans Removals truck in the background.
Jacque Gorman says Nathan works meticulously and she wants him to know he can chase any career.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

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.

Nathan in a high vis orange shirt, black hat, wiping down the side of a truck.
Inclusion Australia says young people with disability who do not have work experience opportunities are left behind.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

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.”

View from inside the truck, Nathing scrubbing the windscreen, soap on the glass.
Nathan’s favourite part of the job is washing the trucks.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

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.”

Nathan kneeling on the ground, taking things in and out of a bucket.
Nathan says he sometimes shouts his family dinner with his earnings.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

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.

A photo of an ad for the Rockhampton Special School's showcase that reads "showcasing what our students can offer you".
Rockhampton Special School runs an annual showcase to link students with potential work experience providers.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

“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.”

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

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