PROFILE: Acorn Network founder and managing director Samantha Bowen wants to promote aged care as a rewarding career path for young people.
Samantha Bowen, 29, was the only student in her postgraduate occupational therapy course who wanted to get into aged care after graduation.
Bowen admits that aged care wasn’t something she had initially considered, but she always felt drawn towards healthcare and helping others. After school, she did a sports science degree and then later joined the navy. Three years later she returned to Perth and, still interested in healthcare, began an OT degree with plans to go into a “cushy” private practice role. However, after volunteering and working in aged care facilities, she realised aged care was an area where she could make a difference.
“I really loved working with and talking to older people – just understanding what it was that they wanted and how we could best support them. I absolutely loved having that perspective,” she tells Australian Ageing Agenda. “You’re giving back and it’s also giving to you; you can see the difference you’re making.”
Bowen says that most of the time it’s only when students do a placement or fall into an aged care after graduating that they realise the industry is a rewarding place to work.
“Something needs to change. They need to stop falling into it, they need to start pursuing it,” says Bowen.
Reducing the roadblocks
Raising the profile of aged care as an innovative and rewarding sector for graduates is one of Bowen’s plans for the Acorn Network, which she established in 2013 with the aims to support Generation Y workers and promote age diversity in the sector.
“One of the challenges is that young people don’t see other young people succeeding and excelling in the sector. There are awards within aged care for young people but we’re not going to universities and TAFEs and promoting these people,” she says.
The idea for the Acorn Network came about after Bowen attended the Emerging Young Leaders on Aged Care and Community Boards program with other interested young people (read AAA’s previous feature on the program).
“None of us had met each other before. We were all so passionate, but there was just nothing outside of the program that would help bring us together,” says Bowen.
To address the issue, Bowen, with assistance of another participant on the program, started the Acorn Network as a community for young aged care workers on the social platform LinkedIn. Within three months, it grew to 200 members.
Bowen quickly realised more could be done, and began to push engagement beyond online. Acorn is now her main focus and her time is devoted to developing strategies to help reduce roadblocks for young people in the industry and help providers better understand Generation Y. She is currently offering mentoring for providers and planning a workshop for young people to develop managerial skills.
Bowen, who also volunteers with the Australia Association of Gerontology WA and the Future Health Leaders Council, believes young people will be key in helping the sector innovate and says it’s a shame that their different perspectives are not regularly included on committees and boards.
“I was talking to an aged care community organisation and they don’t actively recruit anyone under the age of 45,” she says. “They think young people are inexperienced, they’re not loyal and they’re unreliable.”
Challenging these perceptions is something Bowen is still working on, but she has seen positive interest so far. In July, she spoke at the Aged Care Leaders Symposium on how the industry can engage young leaders and also ran a networking event for young professionals, with support from Mirus Australia and the Aged Care Channel. For Bowen, the networking event was a highlight of the work she has done so far and a thrill to see her vision come to life.
“Everyone just talked and connected – talked about why they were passionate about the sector, where they wanted to be in the next couple of years, and shared stories around generational issues in the workplace – people not understanding their point of view, people being challenged by their ambitions or just about being the baby in the office, even though they’re 30.”
When fewer than one in five aged care workers are under 35 and the average industry age 48, Bowen sees events like this as fundamental to support younger workers to feel connected and engaged with the industry.
Bowen is excited for a future where aged care’s workforce is truly multi-generational and hopes the Acorn network can work with the sector to both challenge and support it in this process.
“Everyone can see a lot of challenges on the horizon. Young people generally have a more optimistic view of them and are able to think outside the box, whereas, if you have been an organisation for a long period of time, you’re more likely to continue to approach a problem in the same way,” she says.
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