The Aged Care Royal Commission has laid bare the crucial challenges the industry faces when it comes to its workforce.
Difficulty attracting the right talent and then retaining it. Poor pay compared to competing industries. A reliance on existing workers who are often overworked and under-skilled.
COVID-19 has exacerbated these pressures – but it could also be the trigger to reinvent the aged care workforce, offering a window of opportunity for the sector to build the workforce it needs for the future.
The virus has underscored the reasons why a healthy, robust workforce is so critical to the success of aged care, even if we look beyond the tragic loss of life in some centres.
The logistics required to keep older Australians safe require well-trained, regular personnel, from the restrictions on volunteer support, to being able to enforce limits on visit. It requires increased communication for families as well as additional support to reassure anxious or distressed residents.
Aged care workers need to have both the caring skills and the customer-service skills to navigate unhappy residents or family members, while managing under extreme pressure. But their infection control and hygiene skills must also be advanced, both for the protection of those for whom they care and for their own safety.
As the true fall-out of the virus on older people becomes clear in countries where COVID-19 has been less contained, we can expect the demands for better, safer aged care to become even more important.
This is where disruption in the rest of Australia’s economy provides the chance to look at how the sector can broaden its workforce and bring in skills currently lacking in the workforce mix.
Unlike other sectors, the social need for beds, rooms and home care for elderly citizens didn’t just disappear overnight.
This isn’t retail, where foot traffic dissolved as people stayed at home. Nor is it hospitality, which was largely shut down by government order, or tourism, which has been decimated by border closures.
Those industries will eventually rebuild as lockdown measures lift but it will take time before things return to normal. Even then, there will be some businesses that have closed their doors permanently.
And there-in lies an opportunity. Many of the values aged care facilities seek in their workers – a customer focus, a willingness to take on shift work and an appetite for training and development – can be found in former retail, hospitality and tourism employees.
They are younger (an average age in the mid-20s for retail, hospitality and frontline tourism compared to 47 for aged and disabled carers) and there are also many thousands, right now, looking for opportunities.
In a chaotic job market, aged care could offer one bright light of certainty.
You can’t expect workers from other sectors to immediately offer the same level of service and performance as carers with years of experience, but in many ways, this is a win-win situation.
By investing time into training, you can build a younger, diverse workforce for a growth industry, that won’t pitch and roll dramatically as retail or tourism on the back of economic conditions.
Of course, none of this can be tackled by individual aged care operators. Clearly, a whole-of-industry approach is required, backed up by government.
But given the interest of both government and industry in addressing concerns raised by the Aged Care Royal Commission, motivation for this collaboration certainly exists.
In decades to come, I’m sure many industries will look back at the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath as periods of great change.
Hopefully the aged care sector will be able to reflect on a period when it put in place measures to attract, develop and then retain the workforce it so desperately needed.
Mark Harrison is partner/executive director at national accounting and business advisory firm Pitcher Partners.Do you have an idea for a story?
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