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Good news for the aged care work force


Change has been slow in coming, but it has arrived. A government report on the industry is giving us the most comprehensive picture yet. 

In the midst of uncertainty, it is reassuring to learn that the aged care workforce has been growing strongly over the past five years. And it looks set to continue to grow well into the future to meet the needs of the ageing population.

The Australian government has just recently released its report, The Aged Care Workforce, 2012. Produced by the National Institute for Labour Studies (NILS) at Flinders University, this is the most comprehensive picture we have ever had of those who work in aged care.

The study, which covers both residential and community-based aged care, found that altogether, there are over 350,000 paid employees working in the industry. While the number employed in residential care continue to exceed those in community care, the proportion working in the community is increasing. In 2007, 33 per cent of all staff worked in the community, but by 2012, this had increased to 43 per cent. At this rate of increase, the majority of aged care workers will work outside of residential care settings within the next five years.

Direct care staff now makes up 69 per cent of the total, also an increase over the proportion in 2007. Personal care attendants are the mainstay of the residential direct care workforce, making up 68 per cent of the total. Community care workers, 81 per cent of the total, make up an even greater proportion of community direct care workforce.

But not all staff provides direct care, of course. In residential care, the largest group of staff not providing personal care are those with responsibility for ancillary care, such as cooking, cleaning, maintenance and transport. In community care, the largest group are care managers and service coordinators, closely followed by administrators and management staff.

It won’t be a surprise to ACI readers to learn that the majority of age care staff don’t work full-time. While a high proportion is casual in both residential and community care, the most common form of employment is permanent part-time. About one in two direct care staff in each sector work between 16–34 hours per week.

Although there has been a slight increase in the proportion of direct care workers employed full-time (35 hours or more per week), aged care is mainly based on part-time employment.

Similarly, there has been a slight increase in the proportion of staff born overseas. While there are quite high concentrations of staff born in non-English speaking countries in capital cities across Australia, migrant staff are still approximately the same proportion as they are the in the general population.

There is some other good news hidden in the report. Gone are the days when aged care was an unskilled job suitable for those who lacked qualifications. There has been a big move towards increased qualifications over the past twenty years and now, more than 85 per cent of direct care workers have a post-secondary qualification. This is above the national average.

There is an increasing number of staff pursuing further education. Interestingly, the workforce is also an increasingly older one, with a higher proportion now aged 55 or older.

The proportion of staff aged 35 and under has not significantly changed in recent years, so the increased in older staff is for a large part a result of staff staying on.

But perhaps the single most outstanding characteristic of the aged care workforce is the fact that most workers are women. There has been an increase in recent years in the proportion of men, up from 8 per cent to now just over 10 per cent of the total. But this is still a small proportion of the total, and aged care is one of the last bastions of single-sex employment. Many think this helps explain the low pay and the lack of opportunities relative to comparable areas of employment.

The increase in demand for care, arising from population ageing as well as from the new policies enhancing access to support, mean that for staff, aged care workforce will remain a relatively secure occupation.

Will there be a change in the makeup of the workforce to help meet future demand? Might there be more men attracted to this field? One possibility to help make that more possible would be a shift away from a culture of nursing care to an approach in which aged care increasingly began to open up to the large numbers of qualified personal fitness coaches.

But while it might be a good thing to see more males learn to provide direct, hands-on care, it’s difficult to see how such a culture change in aged care might come about in the aged care field. And while the pay remains low, it’s difficult to see how more men might be attracted to work in the industry.

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  1. Hi Michael, I commented on this report to the researchers in mid March. It’s possibly the best report on the workforce and some of their findings align closely with our small area workforce research projects. Unfortunately for some groups of workers, pay is not the barrier or the highest incentive to remain but it’s the non-wage components that have been less explored and supported by the sector. Again, identified in my thesis in 2006! How long do we have to wait for recognition of supports beyond wages? We are about to launch a small area pre-recruitment strategic project in South West Sydney for people from multicultural backgrounds.

  2. Elizabeth Cooke

    Hi Michael, I like your idea of personal fitness coaches for the elderly, however, as you pointed out it would cost and the money isn’t there. Unfortunately people in residential care are there because they have multiple chronic illnesses and a nursing perspective is needed to manage the consequences of these such as immobility and incontinence. Care workers are unfortunately not educated highly enough to manage this situation. There is a move to try and educate the care workers but naturally they cannot see the point of being educated to be professionals whilst being paid the lowest of wages. I also note that you use the term post-secondary and not tertiary to describe Cert III qualifications. This is appropriate because a Cert III is meant to approximate a year 10 level of academic achievement – hardly something that indicates an expert workforce, As the number of careworkers increases as a proportion of the workforce increases the number of experts ie RN’s decreases with a complementary fall in quality of care. Where is the research into appropriate skill mix to provide optimal care – including our fitness coaches!