Government blind to urgent workforce issues: expert

Australia needs “far-reaching policy development” to improve employment conditions, salaries and training in aged care, a new paper concludes, with one of authors telling Australian Ageing Agenda the government is “blindfolded” regarding workforce issues.

Australia needs “far-reaching policy development” to improve employment conditions, salaries and training in aged care, a new paper concludes, with one of authors telling Australian Ageing Agenda the government is “blindfolded” regarding workforce issues.

The report, from researchers at RMIT University, Curtin University and the University of Technology, Sydney, called for further action to address long-standing sector issues regarding retention and turnover, which is around 25 per cent each year.

Turnover was placing increased financial burden on the sector and leading to further complications such as recruitment costs, increased workloads for existing staff and ineffective supervision, the research found.

Dr Alan Montague
Dr Alan Montague

“It costs a lot of money to keep on recruiting people when you’ve got that turnover, which takes away the money from the salaries that could be paid and more importantly, the care that could be given to the elderly people,” researcher Alan Montague, lecturer at RMIT’s School of Management told AAA.

His comments come as the sector awaits the results of an audit of government-funded workforce programs, that was due to be released by mid-2015, which the government in January confirmed would inform the development of an aged care workforce strategy.

The new research attributed turnover in part to uncompetitive wages, and said it could be argued that the Coalition Government’s decision to scrap the $1.2 billion fund to boost wages in the sector was “short-sighted”. It predicted turnover to worsen as the sector’s ageing workforce – where the average median age is 48 – retires.

“The working conditions need to be made more attractive so seniors can get the care that they rightly deserve in Australian society,” said Dr Montague. “There seems to be a blindfold over government policy in this area. They seem to think, ‘let’s worry about this later’. Well, the problem is now and it’s going to become a burgeoning problem, a worsening problem as times go on.”

Dr Montague said:

“Clothed ears. Blinded eyes. Blunted policy; put it off until we absolutely need to attend to it. While in the interim, the people who are working in the industry and people being cared for in that industry sector are suffering.”

The report has reiterated calls such as those made in the 2011 Productivity Commission report for policy intervention to make wages more fair and competitive, improve access to education and training, develop career pathways and reduce regulatory burdens.

Dr Montague said that the lack of attention to the sector’s ongoing workforce woes was age-discrimination on a “bureaucratic level.”

“We’re not treating elderly Australian citizens in residential aged care – and the older staff that are almost 10 years older that rest of industry sectors on average – with the respect that they deserve,” said Dr Montague.

Providers are not powerless

However, in the absence of a systematic policy response, there was still scope for providers to attract and retain workers at an organisational level using human resource management strategies, the report said.

It looked at a case study that measured job quality in a for-profit aged care facility in Melbourne, conducted by researcher John Burgess, professor of human resource management at Curtin University Business School.

“Our focus was: Are organisations going to sit back and wait for something to happen? Or are they going to do something on their own behalf and develop organisational responses around their recruitment and retention strategies?,” said Professor Burgess.

As part of the case study, interviews were conducted with both management and personal care workers to assess what HR programs addressed job quality concerns and what aspects of job quality were important to employees.

John Burgess
John Burgess

While most employees said their salaries and benefits were inadequate for the work undertaken, this issue was outweighed by other more intrinsic job factors, such as the value of their job and the formal recognition they received.

The facility also had an annual turnover of 5 to 10 per cent – compared to the industry average of 25 per cent.

Professor Burgess said it was significant that in this facility, unlike most in the industry, 90 per cent of staff were employed on permanent-part-time contracts, rather than on a casual basis. It also had significantly higher staff-to-resident ratios than many of its competitors (1:7 compared to the industry average 1:9), which meant stronger relationships with clients and less work intensity.

“That was a conscious decision by management to attract and retain staff. If the staff are committed to the longer-term, then there’s more identity with the clients and with the organisation,” said Professor Burgess. 

Professor Burgess acknowledged that this was only a single case study and that there may be different capacities and pressures within the sector to implement management strategies, such as between not-for-profits and for-profit providers. However, he believed it showed a potential for organisations to address some of the workforce challenges.

“Organisations are not powerless.”

The report, Attracting and retaining Australia’s aged care workers: developing policy and organisational responses, was published in Labour & Industry: a journal of the social and economic relations of work.

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8 thoughts on “Government blind to urgent workforce issues: expert

  1. What concideration is given to the training volunteers in the age care system, and their impact to the cost of the service

  2. Interesting article at a time when I’m about to lose my role as a result of change of funding (HACC to CHSP). Workers may be older but they are not incapable of strategies to direct their career. However the sector definitely lacks a number of resources and benefits that are highlighted for me : lack of external employee assistance, lack of mentors, lack of external supervision, lack of career progression, lack of portability of benefits (no long service leave) and lack of value for those who seek ongoing learning opportunities.

    We call this the care sector but it’s hardly caring about the loss of workers. I wouldn’t entirely lay blame on Govt (though it has contracted its obligations) because organisations who are funded are equally liable for their actions.

    Off to Centrelink with no real choices despite best attempts!

  3. 1.Get rid of the documentation process! It now takes up a significant part of care time. Computerised records do not make it easy for staff, paper was a lot quicker. The design of the programs is very wrong and choices inappropriate as well as being clumsy to use.
    2. Care staff need to want to do the job but many don’t. How would you like intimate care to be done by someone who hated the work? Compassion guarantees good work, disinterest guarantees the opposite. Stop using the dole queue to find workers.
    3. Staff levels are criminal. Exhaustion must set in if workers are required to get through everything they are expected to do. Overtime at one’s own expense is not a solution.
    4. I love my job!

  4. So refreshing to read an honest account of the work force of the aged care sector. Training is a joke – pump people out of a 6 – 8 week course and expect to be able to care for this nations most vulnerable. Internal training also a joke – watch a video and then tick the necessary training sheets and that is all that the accreditation agency takes note of – not the quality of training. Lack of quality people management and mentors in the industry. The ratio’s are totally wrong – 2 people to assist up to 14 people who all need 2 people to help them – staff feeling stressed and totally undervalued and looked upon as lower class citizens because of the work they do. It is very labour intensive. Ratio’s need to be looked at – it is left up to organisations to work it out. Dementia is on the rise but lack of training of how to attend to people with this disease. A lot more needs to be done in the industry. Good to see an article that is not rhetoric based – we need a true account of the industry only then can we seek to rectify our approach in care. We need louder voices in this industry for everyone to sit up and take notice.

  5. No surprises in Dr Montague’s findings; staff retention and training are long-standing issues that wont go away until we lift skills and salaries.

    It isnt complex; pay low, stay low (peanuts and monkeys). Good to see them trotting out that old chestnut about job satisfaction trumping salary…when you cant make the mortgage payments, just tell the bank you really love your job.

    Perhaps the reinvigorated Aged Care Guild could champion the cause for higher wages and better skills? Being very careful, of course, not to do anything that might ‘upset investment in the sector’.

    Here’s an opportunity for peak bodies to initiate substantial and positive change, independent of government policy. If you’re really serious about improving your business model, this is just what you’ve been waiting for…a big idea that will actually work.

    Christine and Louise (above) know how it really is. Keep the studies coming but dont expect anything to change. Staff are just an inconvenient expense that must be contained.

  6. So since the “2011 Productivity Commission report for policy intervention to make wages more fair and competitive, improve access to education and training, develop career pathways and reduce regulatory burdens” there has been no change. Four years down the track and another research report saying the same thing – nothing new to see here, people, move along! The people in this industry work hard and they love their job, but if we’re not paying them enough, eventually they will move on. Where are the unions when it’s time for a new EBA? If not them, then who will champion the workers’ cause?

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