A company facilitating English communication assessment for overseas healthcare professionals who want to work in countries like Australia says its pool of qualified workers could fill aged care staffing gaps. And it wants to work with the sector on a solution.

OET – Occupational English Test – has a network of 300 testing locations in more than 61 countries to assess the English language proficiency of overseas-trained healthcare professionals seeking to register and practise in an English-speaking environment.

The organisation – which pitched its idea to the sector at this week’s Aged Care Quality, Safety and Risk Forum in Sydney – works in the broader healthcare sector with regulated professionals including doctors, nurses, midwives, podiatrists, physiotherapists and veterinarians.

While these professions require near-native English communication skills to qualify for migration-purposes, OET’s Global Commercial Head Adam Phillips said other skills like empathy are important for aged care staff so the qualified health sector candidates with sub-native English skills could be right for the sector.

Adam Phillips

“The assessment of communication opens up the international markets for recruitment,” Mr Phillips told Australian Ageing Agenda on the sidelines of the event.

“We have access to global pools of these workers who are looking to migrate, who are looking to aspire to live in Australia and globally in other English-speaking countries, and we feel there’s a connection point there; where they’re work ready for all intents and purposes,” he said.

“If you have workforce shortages and you need to draw on migrant communities, which are based overseas, then it’s natural that you need to assess communication. That’s where we see the parallels because some professions are already doing that, but it strikes us that aged care could do it.”

OET is keen to hear from aged care stakeholders about how to facilitate this for the sector’s benefit. “We’d very much like to work with the sector to solve a problem [rather than] present the product,” Mr Phillips said. (Interested stakeholders can email customer.service@oet.com.au to get involved in the discussion.)

At the same time, OET is conducting research into the nuances and specific skills that people working in the aged care sector require to perform their duties. “We’re hearing cultural sensitivities, communications and digital literacy are the key categories,” Mr Phillips said.

OET’s pitch is centred on improving communication, which Mr Phillips said the aged care royal commission agreed could help create better health care outcomes. Elevating everyone’s ability to communicate, empathise and articulate what they mean is going to help aged care clients as well as workers if English isn’t their first language “because they’re going to feel like they’re doing a better job,” he said.

Providers keen to explore ideas

OET’s round table presentation at the forum on Tuesday drew interest from aged care stakeholders in the room. Among them was Peter Williams, chief executive officer of Tasmanian aged care provider OneCare, who said it was an interesting idea and one the Commonwealth Government could consider backing.

“Given that they’re looking at workforce reform and potentially engaging international employees, it makes sense that they should be on board with this to make the whole transition easier for everyone,” Mr Williams told AAA at the forum.

Mr Williams said he was also “absolutely” interested in a program to help provide his existing workforce with better English language skills.

“Understanding what OET provides and offers is important from an operations perspective; somewhere to go to that already has a program that you can tap into, that would really benefit not only our staff but also our consumers,” Mr Williams said.

He is confident that it is something that his workers would be interested in too. “I’ve noticed that staff are looking for opportunities. And as an aged care provider, we have to offer – as part of really good management of people – services that they need as much as we need, as well.”

While OET is not a training organisation, it does work with preparation providers, who help candidates prepare for assessments, Mr Phillips said.

Likewise Chris How, CEO of West Australian aged care provider Bethanie Group, said OET’s idea had merit.

Chris How

“There is no silver bullet to the workforce shortage, so I reckon you have to look at anything you possibly can,” Mr How told AAA. “And so I think it’s one of those solutions.”

However, he noted it would also involve risk due to the time, money and effort to get people in with no guarantee they would stay.

Mr How’s comments follow the announcement last week at the Jobs and Skills Summit of a migration intake increase to help bolster staff numbers in priority sectors, including aged care.

Housing shortages add to workforce issues

The other big issue is with accommodation, which is an issue state-wide but more acute in regional and remote WA, Mr How said.

In Busselton, in the south-west of the state, the shire is “writing to every single owner of a B&B, or Airbnb, or anyone who’s got holiday homes and pleading with them to put it on the rental market, because they’ve literally got no rental properties at all. So it’s dire,” Mr How told AAA.

Bethanie Group has a new aged care site due to open soon in nearby Bunbury, which also has no accommodation available, he added. Among ideas to address that, Mr How said he was looking within a 50-kilometre radius for hotels that have shut down due to COVID to possibly lease or purchase and refurbish to use.

“Looking at the aged care home we are opening, potentially do we use a wing of that to house our staff? Or at least until they can find their own accommodation. You just got to think outside the box because there’s not going to be any solution to this.”

The Aged Care Quality, Safety and Risk Forum took place 6-7 September at the Amora Hotel, Sydney.

Australian Ageing Agenda is a media partner of the conference

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