Reinvigorating the aged care sector through education

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Outrages around quality care shortfalls, COVID-19 outbreaks in residential aged care facilities, coupled with the recent Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, have unfortunately painted a bad picture of the Australian aged care sector.

This has affected the number of workers in the field and resulted in poor uptake of nursing degrees. However, carers will tell anyone it’s a rewarding industry to work in with endless learning opportunities, and one in which they make a lasting impact on our ageing population, their families, and our communities.

Regrettably, according to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, we’re seeing up to 65,000 workers exiting aged care every year due to challenges incurred through the shortage of labour and care funding adequacy, as well as low wages. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the steady stream of talent into the sector due to very low migration disrupting the influx of qualified workers and students alike. But how will we fill these nursing positions without an emerging workforce coming through higher education? Without this talent pool, how will the health and aged care sectors survive – or even recover from the rapidly growing employee gaps?

That’s why many providers are relying on the approaching Federal Budget for investment to drive better outcomes in aged care by supporting its predominant capital – its workforce. Education is arguably the most important element of the aged care sector’s long-term recovery. It will be key to reinvigorating the sector by attracting passionate people into the field, moulding tomorrow’s workforce, increasing labour supply and helping improve industry reputation.

The recent Jobs and Skills Summit was a step in the right direction towards addressing ongoing skill shortages and driving a stronger workforce. This included advocating to increase the overall cap on migration from 160,000 to 195,000 places a year, funding education through 465,000 fee-free TAFE positions across the country and working on plans to future-proof the workforce across all industries. More clarity on the allocation of resources and contribution to health and aged care will hopefully come out in the October 2022 Federal Budget.

While this backing will hopefully help address shortages in the sector short-term – and will be instrumental to fulfil the minimum care minutes per resident per day objective – to support aged care to its full extent, investment into education is a key component the Federal Budget will need to provide clarity around.

We’ve already heard a $48.5m commitment towards 15,000 extra training places for personal care workers in the former Federal Government’s March 2022 Budget. In addition, in its opposition Budget in March 2022, the new Federal Government announced its ambition to contribute $2.5b towards resolving the aged care 'crisis' and overhaul the sector. This funding would go towards higher pay for workers, more registered nurses for aged care homes, better food and safer conditions for residents.

Last week, the sector also took comfort in Health Minister Mark Butler’s announcement of a $1.4b investment into pandemic recovery. This rapid injection of new Federal funding will help healthcare providers and aged care homes pay for workers, test kits, protective equipment and medicines for the rest of the calendar year.

State Governments have also been taking different measures to improve care at a local level. Only last month, Victoria invested $270m towards providing 10,000 aspiring nurses and midwives university degrees paid in full to support the local health system. New South Wales on the other hand isn’t providing as much support resulting in nursing and care workers going on strike multiple times this year to advocate for better nurse-to-patient ratios and higher wages, to encourage less carers leaving the sector, and for better quality of care.

In light of these events, we look forward to hearing how the Federal Government will address education to support the aged care sector’s workforce and receive much-needed support and clarity to the aged care sector more broadly.