A DSS submission to a Productivity Commission inquiry proposes enhanced skilled migration to bolster the aged care workforce, which has been welcomed by employers.
Aged care provider peak bodies have welcomed new comments from the Department of Social Services (DSS) suggesting the greater use of migrant workers to address the sector’s workforce shortages.
In a submission to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into Australia’s migration scheme, DSS said that with the ageing population and projected shortage of unpaid carers, “alternative models for determining migration intakes could provide opportunities to increase/complement the existing aged and disability care workforce shortages and augment labour shortages in the healthcare system.”
Under the current migration arrangements, aged care providers can sponsor and employ registered nurses from overseas, but are precluded from sponsoring personal care workers due to requirements around qualifications and minimum salary.
When asked by Australian Ageing Agenda to clarify whether DSS was proposing changing the scheme so that care workers could be sponsored, a departmental spokesperson said that its submission “simply canvasses a range of issues” and that weekend media reports of a “government plan” in the area were “exaggerated.”
But aged care provider peak bodies say that a government plan in the area is exactly what’s needed.
Adjunct Professor John Kelly, CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia, said that with 1,000 people turning 85 and 2,000 turning 65 each week, the aged services workforce was in need of strategic government planning and policy.
“There’s been a lot of lip service, but it has not been given the priority it should be,” Adjunct Professor Kelly told AAA.
Government figures showed the sector would need another 25,000 full time equivalent workers in residential care and 17,000 in home care, he said. Even with the most creative recruitment programs, the aged care workforce shortfall would not be addressed.
“There is no doubt that migration will have to play a significant part in meeting the needs of the sector,” he said.
When asked whether the migration scheme should be broadened so providers could sponsor personal care workers, Adjunct Professor Kelly said that “anything that enables providers to be able to directly tap into not just registered nurses but care workers from overseas is beneficial.”
Similarly, Leading Age Services Australia CEO Patrick Reid said that new strategies were required to address the sector’s workforce shortages, which would only get worse as demand for services increased.
“LASA supports the immediate development of a workforce strategy that includes changes to immigration policy that would improve opportunities for skilled care workers from overseas to join Australia’s age services industry as one part of the solution to addressing our workforce shortage,” Mr Reid told AAA.
LASA was working with representatives from both government and the opposition on alternate workforce models, which included different models for migration intake, he said.
While there was a recognised shortage of registered nurses in aged care, suitably skilled care workers were also needed to adequately meet the needs of all older Australians. In addition to everyday care, these needs included changing cultural diversity within the ageing population, Mr Reid said.
Unions representing nurses and care workers in aged care had mixed views on the department’s comments.
Jo-anne Schofield, national president of United Voice, said that relying on overseas workers on temporary visas was a very short-term solution.
“Utilising skilled overseas workers to fill temporary shortages is entirely appropriate but we need to be investing in longer term solutions that provide good jobs for local workers,” she told AAA.
“We very much support permanent migration to Australia. Temporary work visas should be just that – a short term, temporary arrangement to fill a gap while the local workforce can be trained up to fill these positions,” said Ms Schofield.
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation said that while it supported migration, it was increasingly concerned about the negative impact of temporary migrant workers on the employment of domestic graduate nurses.
“Over the past few years there has been a consistent and chronic underemployment of nursing graduates despite the employment of large numbers of offshore nurses,” said ANMF federal secretary Lee Thomas.
Nurses with temporary work visas were employed across all sectors of health, community and aged care, with residential aged care and private hospitals employing the bulk of these workers, she said.
“Any moves to expand the use of temporary migrant workers in health and aged care as has been suggested by the Department of Social Services would very likely exacerbate the difficulty in securing employment for graduate nurses and midwives,” said Ms Thomas.
Call for release of workforce audit and strategy
Meanwhile, the sector is still awaiting the outcome of a key review into existing workforce initiatives.
In January, AAA confirmed that the Commonwealth had begun an audit of government-funded aged care workforce programs with the aim of developing an aged care workforce development strategy.
The audit, being undertaken by consulting firm Health Outcomes International, began in October 2014 and was expected to be completed by mid-2015.
Subsequently, in May, the Federal Government cut 15 per cent from the Aged Care Workforce Fund, which Assistant Minister for Social Services Mitch Fifield confirmed was made independently of the government’s audit.
In recent weeks the federal opposition has been calling for the government to reveal the outcome of the audit and produce its workforce strategy for the sector.
In a joint statement on 3 July, Shane Neumann, Shadow Minister for Ageing, and Senator Helen Polley, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Aged Care, accused the government of ignoring the “workforce crisis in aged care.”
“We are still waiting to find out what this audit revealed, let alone see an aged care workforce strategy – coherent or otherwise,” they said.
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