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Will immigration fix Australia's health worker shortage?

A group of medical practitioners wearing face masks while standing together in a hospital
Australia is facing a significant shortfall in healthcare workers across the country. (Source: Getty) (PeopleImages via Getty Images)

The shortage of health care professionals – just one of the sectors experiencing skills shortages across Australia – is becoming a major challenge, according to new research from job data provider WebRover.

As reported on this site recently, nurses in particular are in demand across the country, with many health organisations competing for the same skilled resources in this critical field.

It’s not unexpected that demand for healthcare workers is high given we have just been through a global pandemic, but do the structural changes in our economy that have resulted threaten to make hiring skilled health practitioners a challenge for the foreseeable future?


Shortfall of nurses is ‘unprecedented’

Yahoo Finance Australia spoke to healthcare recruitment leader Juliet Aryana, divisional ceo of healthcare for leading staffing firm PeopleIn, to gain her insights into what is happening in the market.

“The shortfall of available nurses in particular is unprecedented, with this being driven by several factors. Border closures have taken away the overseas candidate market, and the numbers of nursing students coming through the system has also declined,” Aryana said.

That's quite a statement coming from someone with over 20 years’ experience in the Australian healthcare employment industry, highlighting the challenges the market is currently facing.

So, apart from the pandemic, what are the reasons for this shortfall in healthcare workers?

Aryana goes on to explain that a combination of closing borders, which has stymied the supply of overseas candidates to the market, alongside a drop in the number of nursing students graduating their training and entering the workforce, has resulted in significant shortages of qualified staff.

Wage pressures growing, contract rates soaring

Given the demand for staff in the health care industry at present, it’s not surprising that salary levels in the sector are starting to be tested, a fact that Aryana confirms is already occurring in certain markets.

“Wage pressures are increasing due to demand outstripping supply, and we have already seen the rates for contract roles increase significantly,” she said.

And it's significant that it is the contract market, where workers are engaged on a short term or casual basis, that is experiencing the biggest rise in remuneration.

It’s this market that workers with in-demand skills will often gravitate to in order to capitalise financially on market conditions. If that occurs in the health care employment market, this could add further challenges for employers looking to retain some stability in their workforces.

As Aryana highlights, the contract market is also usually a forerunner to what occurs in the permanent employment market. If rates are rising for casual employees, it’s likely that permanent salaries will follow.

VIntage Style Photo Of A District Nurse Sign On A Garden Gate
Shortages of nurses in regional and rural areas are particularly acute. (Source: Getty) (mrdoomits via Getty Images)

Regional and remote Australia struggling to attract qualified staff

One additional factor in the current market is the location of where workers are most in need.

Given demand across the country, it is perhaps unsurprising that regional and rural areas are the ones where staff shortages are currently most acute.

As the data from WebRover indicates, while the major cities in Australia make up 60 per cent of the population, only 25 per cent of roles advertised in the last 12 months are located there.

The research indicates that it is smaller towns and cities experiencing the most difficulty in hiring qualified nurses in particular, and even the rise of tele-health services is unlikely to remedy this shortfall.

“Nursing is a hands-on job. In my opinion, tele-health services won’t replace the need for qualified nurses in the regions in the short term,” Aryana said.

While doctors are becoming more adept at delivering services remotely, nursing more often requires a physical presence. Getting such skills into remote and regional areas wasn’t easy pre-pandemic, and the last two years have exacerbated this problem.

Overseas skills return, but is it enough?

Despite the current challenges, there is light at the end of the tunnel for organisations struggling to hire healthcare professionals in Australia, with borders opening and skills returning from overseas.

“We are starting to see the overseas candidate market returning now borders are opening up, but the pent-up demand is so big that we don’t expect this to completely solve the staffing issues for many health organisations in the next 12 months,” Aryana said.

While the return of qualified health practitioners from outside Australia will certainly aid the problem, it won’t alleviate the issue completely.

If Australia is to normalise the market for healthcare professionals post-Covid, we can’t rely on immigration alone.

Incentives to encourage new students into the industry may also be required to ensure the current shortfall doesn’t develop into a long-term structural problem.

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