SKILLS funding policies could be jeopardising productivity in a $15 billion component of the workforce by overlooking the country's five million-plus army of volunteers.
Kit McMahon, general manager of the Services Industries Skills Council, said incentives were generally geared to people in paid positions, such as trainees.
She said the federal government had not made clear whether not-for-profit enterprises would be eligible for its new national workforce development fund, which will allocate training funds to businesses, industry bodies and professional associations.
"Those negotiations are still going on," she said.
Arrangements such as Victoria's upskilling requirement, which withholds training subsidies from students not improving on previous qualification levels, also could disadvantage volunteers.
About 38 per cent of Australia's volunteers already have degrees or diplomas, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures.
A 2010 Productivity Commission report put the wage equivalent value of about 59,000 "economically significant" not-for-profit organisations' volunteers at $14.6 billion.
'[These] estimates fail to capture the broader community benefits," it added.
Volunteers are vital to these organisations, which contribute more than 4 per cent of gross domestic product and employ 8 per cent of the paid workforce, the report found.
About half of Australia's volunteers help the hundreds of thousands of small community organisations with no paid staff at all.
Retaining them is the key challenge, according to NSW Sports Federation chief executive Debbie Kemp. "People put their hands up to help, they get thrown in the deep end, they take on more roles, then they burn out," she said. "If people were trained so that they felt confident in their roles, it would make a big difference."
Sport and physical recreation, easily the biggest volunteer sector, exemplifies the challenges. Many of the estimated 1.7 million volunteers are parents typically supporting their children's sport clubs who have professional qualifications but need training in areas such as sport administration.
More are among the 16 per cent of volunteers seeking work experience, often with a view to securing paid work. "Those young volunteers are looking for a return to their CVs," Ms McMahon said.
About 69 per cent of volunteers are employed, and Ms McMahon said volunteering led to improvements in their productivity and retention.
Ms McMahon said the attitude to training was symptomatic of a wider social mindset, with volunteers overlooked statistically and often even failing to self-identify as volunteers.
Service Skills Australia research and policy adviser Andrew Pleffer said only paid workers were factored into national staffing estimates of the 117,000- strong sport and recreation industry, even though volunteer numbers in the sector were about 15 times as high.
Dr Pleffer said recent research showed many not-for-profit managers had difficulty recalling how many volunteers they had or the qualifications they held.