By 2065 we’ll need 4 times more aged care workers
By mid-century Australia will need almost one million aged care workers. That means almost five per cent of our entire national workforce will be engaged in caring for the burgeoning ranks of the old and frail.
Yet, today, we are struggling to maintain an aged care workforce just one quarter that size, leaving many vulnerable, elderly Australians at the mercy of rushed, impersonal “work flows” and a constantly changing roster of carers—and raising the dreadful prospect of “warehousing” the aged into the future, with little more than perfunctory physical care.
This should not come as a surprise. The entry level award wage for personal carers, for example, is significantly lower than the award for new zookeepers charged with the well being of animals.
This particular anomaly was highlighted in the final report of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into aged care released on Monday. But, there are many more.
Take the pay of a worker with certificate III qualifications in aged care and compare it to that of metalworker with the same level qualifications. The metal worker comes out at least 44 per cent better off.
While Australians are, understandably, focused on how they will fund their care in old age—and especially if they will be able to hang onto the family home— it’s just as important to ask who will care for us. The Productivity Commission’s report finally suggests some answers.
The Commission found that, despite existing shortages of aged care workers, competition for staff has not pushed up wages. For these essential workers at the very bottom end of Australia’s pay scales, “market forces” are not working.
This is partly because the pricing of aged care services has long been constrained by various Federal funding formulas, so employers have been able to cry poor. As a result aged care workers have fallen progressively behind community income standards, and their work is now historically undervalued— eroding the attractiveness of aged care jobs.
Should the Federal Government adopt the Commission’s recommendation of sweeping deregulation of the aged care sector, prices for care will rise for those who can afford to pay, and government funding must increase to subsidise those who can’t.
However, the Commission also concluded that we cannot rely on the “market” to right the wages gap, even in competitive, deregulated aged care market. Instead, an “independent mechanism” is needed if we are to succeed in recruiting, training and retaining the qualified workers we need to provide kind, personal, attentive care.
Specifically, the additional funds to ensure “fair and competitive wages” should be separated from the cost of the broader aged care reform agenda.
The alternative is untenable; that is, a failure to meet the emotional, social and physical needs of older Australians as the ranks of the aged swell from 13 per cent of over 65s in 2007 to 23-25 per cent in 2056, and from two per cent to five to seven per cent of over 85s.
In other industries, successive Australian Governments have plugged labour shortages by bringing in migrant workers. But, this is not even a potential, short term “band-aid,” except to assist aged Australians with specific language and cultural needs.
Globally, health and care workers are already in short supply and while demand for aged care workers in Australia and New Zealand triples to 2050; it will double in the much larger markets of the US and Japan.
Based on conversations with our members in aged care, we know many would love nothing more than to be able to draw a decent wage, and to make provision for their own retirement, by caring for others. They are passionate about the role they play in our society and dedicated to their jobs.
But, many of our member currently report persistent time stresses that might limit one-on-one care, for example, to ten minutes a day.
Over half of our residential aged care workers say they don’t have enough time with residents. Yet, we know that well being of the elderly depends on more than simply meeting physical needs like food and hygiene. The result is high staff turnover and low retention rates; only 28 per cent of aged care workers stay in the same job for more than six years.
The Productivity Commission report presents an unprecedented opportunity for change. But, providing dignified care for an ageing population will cost Australian as a nation more. It will also require employers to recognise that wages and conditions must shift upwards.
That’s why we commissioned independent research to coincide with release of the Productivity Commission Report.
The results were encouraging. Australians overwhelmingly believe aged care must be more generously funded by the Federal Government.
Ninety-three per cent of Australians said more aged care funding was “very important” or “quite important”, ahead of renewable energy, public transport and defence. In fact, it was clearly at the top of the funding list.
If this need for increased funding is not met, the alternative is simply untenable – the failure to meet the emotional, social and physical needs of millions of older Australians.
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