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Frustrations rise over workforce

The delayed release of the Federal Government’s audit of workforce programs has stalled the development of a sector workforce strategy, much to the annoyance of aged care providers, unions and professional groups.

In January the Federal Government confirmed it had commissioned an audit of government-funded aged care workforce programs to inform the development of a workforce strategy for the sector.

An Aged Care Sector Committee Workforce Advisory Group had been established to provide advice on the project, then minister Mitch Fifield told Australian Ageing Agenda at the time.

The audit, which was due by mid-year, is yet to be released. As a result, the proposed workforce strategy is in limbo.

Frustrations with delay

John Kelly, chief executive officer with Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA), said there was no rationale as to why the government had not released the audit so that stakeholders could at least take note of its findings, ahead of work commencing on the workforce strategy.

“I travel around the country and the one key issue I hear, not just from providers but for anyone working in this sector, is workforce. There seems to be some reluctance [on government’s behalf] about beginning the process,” he tells AAA.

Lee Thomas

Lee Thomas

A similar sense of urgency emerges when speaking to Lee Thomas, federal secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF), who believes a perfect storm is brewing in residential aged care in particular, given the increasing frailty and acuity of seniors entering facilities, as a result of bolstering home care provision, coupled with predicted shortfalls in appropriately skilled workers, particularly registered nurses.

“The question for all of us is how we are going to manage this now and into the future when we know it’s becoming increasingly difficult to attract and retain staff who are sufficiently skilled in the areas required in residential aged care,” Thomas says.

Patrick Reid, CEO of Leading Age Services Australia (LASA), says it is his understanding that the audit has been completed for some time and “has gone into a holding pattern” with the change of minister and moving of aged care from the Department of Social Services back into the Department of Health.

Who’s responsible?

John Kelly

John Kelly

Apart from the frustrations with the delay in releasing the audit into government-funded workforce programs, the provider peaks are becoming increasingly suspicious that the Federal Government is backing away from developing the workforce strategy announced by Fifield back in January.

This raises the obvious question – who is responsible for developing a workforce strategy for aged care?

“The key policy issues that need to be signed off and applied around the country can’t be done in an ad hoc way,” says Kelly. “Why government isn’t getting on and oversighting this … is just bewildering.”

ACSA has become so frustrated with the lack of progress, Kelly says the peak is about to begin developing its own workforce strategy, which it will present to government. “We can’t wait around anymore. We held off defining what we think should be part of a strategy because we wanted it to be multi-stakeholder, overseen by government. However, time has run out, so we are going to get on and do it ourselves,” says Kelly.

Patrick Reid

Patrick Reid

Reid agrees on the need for government to take the lead. “The one agency that can pull together people to facilitate these sorts of meetings, to get them in the room, is government. So if they are not willing to do that, then that is a problem.”

Thomas says that as government is the majority funder of aged care and “pulls the policy levers” in related areas such as education and training, and migration, it has to be part of the development and implementation of a strategy, in partnership with providers, unions and other stakeholders.

What should it cover?

A key concern for any workforce strategy needs to a clear articulation of the sorts of skills and knowledge that workers in aged care need, says Debbie Blow, who oversees health and nursing at Gold Coast TAFE and was on the National Aged Care Workforce Advisory Group set up by DSS.

Blow argues that the make-up of the current workforce is too highly geared towards unregulated workers. “The high level of unregulated workers in the sector is one of my concerns,” she says, arguing that the strategy should introduce the regulation of personal care workers.

Debbie Blow

Debbie Blow

Aged care has traditionally done a poor job of promoting the benefits of working in the sector, and the strategy should consider ways of better articulating the possibilities for new entrants and graduates to fast track their careers or enter areas of specialisation, she says.

The strategy needs to tackle another long-standing issue in the sector- the provision of quality clinical placements for students in aged care, says Blow. While there are examples of structured and well-resourced placement programs, they need to be formalised in the new national plan.

From Thomas’ perspective, the strategy needs to specify the numbers of staff and required skill mix and qualifications. This can be informed by forthcoming research, due in June 2016, being funded by her union, which will examine the ACFI funding provided to a resident cohort and establish the desired skill mix of the care staff looking after them, she says.

Significantly, Thomas argues that the workforce strategy should initially focus on residential aged care. “We cannot bite off more than we can chew at one time… I just don’t think we can do both at same time. When we get into community care we have the intersection with disability, and that’s a different ballgame.”

Like Blow, Thomas says the development of the strategy needs to provide for the mandatory regulation of personal care workers, to bring about professional standards and minimum qualifications. “Certainly we’ve been a lone voice on regulation for a long time. More people are coming to our view now that it is the right thing. Although there might be some dispute about how we achieve that, there is support for the principle,” she says.

From the providers’ perspectives, Reid says the strategy needs to provide for greater workforce flexibility than is currently the case, given the adoption of CDC requires providers to meet individual preferences of clients.

“We need policy settings to enable the workforce to meet demand, particularly in home care where it is not necessarily 9 to 5 work; the same in residential where we’ll need more flexible rosters.”

Reid agrees with Blow that the sector needs to consider new ways of attracting workers. “Aged care does have a bit of an image problem as it were,” he says.

An extended version of this article appears in the current issue of AAA magazine (November-December 2015). 

Want to have your say on this story? Comment below. Send us your news and tip-offs to editorial@australianageingagenda.com.au 

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