Jarnail was originally from the Punjab region in India. He came to Australia to study engineering six years ago, graduated, became a permanent resident, couldn’t find work as an engineer, and like many in our sector, ‘fell into aged care’. These days however, he drives an Uber in Adelaide.
When asked why he left aged care, he offered the following:
I am my own boss driving an Uber. I work when I want to work, and that’s not a problem. Aged care is hard, I have less stress now, and I make more money.
His wife, Harveen, joined him a bit more than two years ago. Wanting a quick qualification, she completed a Certificate III in Individual Support. However, upon finishing her studies, it took a year before she found a job in aged care. Now she works in disability, because the pay and hours are better.
Jarnail and Harveen’s story highlights the current workforce state-of-play in age services. On one hand, we see someone who has left the sector because of poor working conditions and low pay. On the other, someone who is newly qualified to work in aged care, but can’t find a job in a sector desperate for qualified staff—and subsequently also leaving the sector for higher pay and better conditions.
Amidst recent campaigns to promote age services careers to school leavers and career changers, it’s reasonable to get an uneasy feeling that unless we fix the context of aged care jobs, we as a sector, might be making promises we can’t deliver.
Expediently increasing workforce capacity in our sector, without getting to the systemic heart of the problem, is like building more roads (or lanes) to fix traffic congestion. It might work in the near-term, but the problem will come back.
At the centre of this is our sector’s existential reality of having to operate under tough scarcity pressures. Through an economic lens, we understand scarcity with the premise that there are unlimited wants and needs, but with limited resources to meet those needs. This invariably leaves us with three options:
However, in a sector like ours, defined by complexities that, at times, defy geometry, this has clear psychological impacts on decision-makers, staff, and organisations—none of which are good. For instance, think of a stressed-out team faced with funding, staffing, and time shortages, you’ll find team members:
Essentially, our workforce is working in a scarcity trap whereby:
Those who’ve delivered services in the sector know the effects of this scarcity trap all too well. However, unless we address these issues, we’ll continue to have workforce challenges. In a mature sector like ours, we tend to have a conventional view on business, and when it comes to workforce, it’s a big-scary-cost to be kept under strict control.
A study by Zeynep Ton at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that winning companies paid more than their rivals, they also overstaffed to create more organisational bandwidth so they can take advantage of opportunities, and navigate through tough commercial patches.
Perhaps overstaffing feels like a luxury in our sector, but creating an organisation with a strong foundation of trust—where you feel cared for, where your best interest is looked after, and where you’re not going to lose your job at a moment’s notice—is really a necessity.
Dan Ariely at Duke University discovered two common workplace practices that correlated to strong business performance. First, staff felt secure in their jobs; companies where staff reported feeling safe outperformed their peers in the market. The second factor, workers expressing a ‘strong sense of welcome’ at their organisation.
The conventional business belief that you must choose between being a good business, and being a good employer, is essentially the premise of a business failure story held up as a business success story. It’s a false choice.
As a care sector, we make our society a better place by ensuring that elders in our community are properly looked after. We also achieve this by creating good jobs where people get a decent wage, have attractive employment benefits, and are happy at work.
In the midst of ongoing reforms, if there is one essential goal that we should collectively have, it is to contribute a verse in elevating our society.
Merlin Kong is Head of innovAGEING and Interim Director of the Centre for Workforce Development & Innovation, LASA.
 Names and details have been changed.