The way we talk and think about our workforce when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff, can sometimes keep us stuck. With change and reform hurtling towards the Community Services Industry, now is the time to explore how innovation and collaboration can prepare us for the future.

When it comes to the growing need for non-residential home care support in Australia, Robyn Kaczmarek has done just that.

Robyn, along with a small group of support workers, set up an innovative new model The Co-operative Life to provide individualised service and support.

The Co-operative Life support workers are co-owners of the business and their vested interest in ensuring that clients and the business succeed has resulted in a more sustainable workforce.

Robyn Kaczmarek will be sharing her insights at CSIA’s NDIS six years on: insights from the Hunter event.

CSIA sat down with Robyn for a chat about why co-operatives may change the way we think about workforce in the Community Services Industry.

Setting up a Worker-Owned Co-operative

As Robyn’s career progressed, she moved into case management helping people find care. She knew she wanted to grow her business but the traditional business model wasn’t going to meet her needs. This led her down a pathway that was unique to Australia.

“I felt the people providing the care needed to have a voice, so I started to look overseas at what was happening in the aged care sector. And that was when I decided to form a worker-owned co-operative,” explains Robyn. “In Italy and Spain 50% of all social care organisations are co-operatives.”

Adapting the business models of Care and Share Associates in the UK and Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York, Robyn put a call out to her network to form a local co-operative in Sydney.

It took one year for Robyn and four local support workers to develop a business plan, with The Co-operative Life coming to life in 2013.

The Future of Workforce

While there are no other worker-owned co-operatives in community care, the NDIS has provided opportunities for housing co-operatives to be formed by people with disability, their families and carers.

“The future is huge for co-operatives because of the benefits for local people,” says Robyn. “People gather together naturally to fix a problem, they recognise there’s a need in their area and they join together to provide care services. It’s a huge opportunity.”

Robyn cites NDIS market changes as a challenge for current care services in Australia and co-operatives as an innovative solution.

“The NDIS provides a perfect opportunity for a group of workers to get together and form a co-operative to continue to give care and give people a job.”

Business in a Box

But just how easy would it be for people in a small community to set up a worker-owned co-operative?

Recently 26 support workers lost their jobs in the New England, Inverell and Glenn Innes region and 40 participants lost service provision.

Robyn saw an opportunity to turn things around for the region. Within 2-3 weeks The Co-operative Life took over the services and the support workers were able to keep their jobs.

“What we really want to do is keep jobs local, keep the care local and give back to the workers,” says Robyn.

This was the catalyst for the University of Technology Sydney getting on board to work with Robyn in developing a Business in a Box. Robyn acknowledges setting up a co-operative takes work and equity but using a Business in a Box and a few weeks training makes the process more achievable.

Workforce Retention

Robyn has noticed that people in worker-owned co-operative jobs were staying longer than she had seen in other business models. A phenomenon she puts down to the simpler structure and a buy-in from staff.

The member value proposition offered to workers also focuses on training and resources to suit the specific needs of the support workers.

“The workers get to decide whether they want to re-invest profits back into their business for training, business development or give themselves a bonus,” explains Robyn.

And for Robyn and her colleagues, this is a business they feel is going to be around for a while to come.

“We’ve gone through the hurdles that we needed to so we’re not going anywhere we’re just going to get bigger and better,” says Robyn.