Above: Stephen Kobelke, CEO of ACSWA.
By Stephen Easton
West Australia’s aged and community care industry should look overseas for its future workforce, according to Aged & Community Services Western Australia (ACSWA).
ACSWA CEO, Stephen Kobelke, released the statement yesterday evening in response to remarks made last week by the WA Premier, Colin Barnett, that mining companies should be able to recruit unskilled workers from overseas.
“It is not only the mining sector that requires thousands of additional workers in the short to medium term, the aged and community care sector desperately needs workers too,” Mr Kobelke said.
“The reality is that health and aged care is WA’s single biggest sector, employing more than 141,000 workers, and yet our ageing population needs thousands more paid caregivers to cope with demand for future services.”
Mr Barnett’s comments have also attracted criticism, from an alliance of three unions and the Australian Steel Institute, who argue that “not enough is being done to harness the capacity of the underutilised labour force locally”.
Mr Kobelke said that access to temporary migration options from countries such as the UK and Ireland, as well as other parts of the world, should be made easier for aged care and personal care workers, who make up 65 per cent of the aged and community care workforce.
“Undoubtedly, there is going to be a greater demand for paid carers of older people, both in the community and in residential accommodation, and this increase must be planned for now as it will become acute in the mid-2020s.
“It is also vital for the federal government to examine the current obstacles for these people to work in Australia due to the qualification and pay level barriers associated with the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme (RSMS) and 457 visas.
“In addition, WA’s special needs in terms of the vast size of our state and the impact of WA’s resources boom on salaries and the availability of local workers must also be recognised urgently.”
Meanwhile, on the east coast
Similar issues – but focused on aged care nurses – were also discussed at a recent industry forum in Sydney last week, hosted by Sue Macri and Bruce Bailey from Guild Accountants (now a subsidiary of RSM Bird Cameron).
Jonathan Shteinman, who owns several small nursing homes in the Sydney area, suggested that the registration board for nurses could recognise more overseas qualifications, and that the salary level requirement for 457 visas could be relaxed to extend them to first-year nurses.
“…Whether it’s the ethnic makeup of my workforce, or the fact of the [relatively high] average age of nurses, I just don’t believe that a lot of the Australian-based and educated nurses want to work in aged care, and I feel that bringing people in from overseas is definitely one of the biggest parts of the solution,” Mr Shteinman said.
“I really feel that the registration board issues [are also important]; you’ve even got British-trained nurses taking six months to get registered [in Australia] now.
“As you know I’ve brought them in from Zimbabwe but I can’t bring them in from the Philippines, because the Philippines isn’t a former Commonwealth country and that’s just crazy.”
Aged Care Association Australia (ACAA) CEO, Rod Young, told Mr Shteinman that the sector’s future workforce worries could only be solved with a range of solutions, but did not address the idea of utilising more overseas workers specifically.
ACAA-NSW CEO, Charles Wurf, agreed that there was “no magic bullet”, but said that aged care providers must accept their inability to offer competitive wages in some clinical positions, and offer employment conditions that attract workers in other ways.
“Certainly the overseas and interstate migration of skilled people will help but at the end of the day, we’ve now gone past a quarter of a million Australians who work in aged care, both in residential and community, with a projection for at least probably another 50,000,” Mr Wurf said.
“Unless you as an individual, and of us all in the room collectively, can offer attractive places to work then you’re not going to find them,” he told Mr Shteinman.
The forum’s facilitator, Sue Macri, pointed out that workforce pressures were even more acute in Queensland and Western Australia, due to the mining boom, as noted yesterday afternoon by Stephen Kobelke.
Graeme Prior, CEO of WA nursing home operator, Hall and Prior, said that the boom years preceding the global financial crisis (GFC) saw wages for WA aged care providers increase by about 8.5 per cent, while funding only grew by around 4 per cent, “so you lost your business basically, in that period of time”.
“The GFC levelled the market and today it’s stabilised with lots and lots of spare labour in the carers sector,” Mr Prior said. “Looking to the future, the boom’s coming back, and it’s starting to bite now.”
However, Mr Prior said that in his experience, recruiting Australian nurses to aged care work and retaining them was possible, but required a combination of high enough wages and other conditions like ongoing training.
“[…] We employ 240 Division 1 nurses and we have no problem getting nurses – they just cost the price – that’s what it boils down to. If you want to train them and keep them, you’ll keep them. The nurses are out there, the pool’s growing throughout the country every year; it’s just up to us to be able to afford higher wages.”
Mr Kobelke said aged and community care providers throughout WA were looking forward to action on the Productivity Commission’s Caring for Older Australians report, currently being considered by the Gillard Government ahead of the 2012/13 budget.
“Urgent reform on many levels, not least the provision of thousands of more workers, is exactly what we need to ensure an aged care system which is sustainable and provides older people with the choice of community or residential aged care services when they need them,” Mr Kobelke said.