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The pandemic, coupled with Australia’s ageing population, means an extra 205,900 healthcare and social assistance workers will need to be added to the workforce by 2025, according to a report by the National Skills Commission released this morning.

But with low immigration and COVID-19 risks, where is Australia going to get all those extra workers from?

The state of the workforce

The healthcare sector is dominated by women aged 20-34. There were more than 586,000 registered health practitioners in Australia in 2018, of which just 146,000 were men. Also 46% of the workforce is employed part time.

Health Services Union (HSU) national secretary Lloyd Williams told Crikey more needed to be done to address ongoing issues in the sector before a recruitment drive.

“The HSU is less concerned about where we can source these workers from and more concerned about how to retain workers once they’re in the system,” he said.

Disability, aged care and mental health workers earn some of the lowest wages in the country, and the industry is becoming increasingly casualised.

“For too long workers have only been offered low hours, short shifts and insecure employment; it makes a long-term career in the sector almost impossible,” Williams said.

“This pandemic has exposed just how broken the system is and left many of the current workers burnt out.”

Cash, immigration and education are key

Immigration is key to Australia’s health sector. One third of medical practitioners working in Australia received their initial qualification overseas.

CEO of the Grattan Institute Danielle Wood told Crikey Australia often looked abroad to recruit healthcare workers.

“Historically we have relied on immigration to fill gaps in government services, health and aged care sectors,” Wood said. 

But Australia’s border closures in response to COVID-19 has seen immigration slow to a trickle. In September, arrival numbers dropped by 57% compared to August 2019.

Earlier this year, the federal government announced a massive shakeup to how university courses are funded. The cost of a three-year nursing degree is now $11,850 — a decrease of 42%. 

The aim is to get more students into vocational studies — but Wood said this approach might not be as successful as the government hopes. 

“It doesn’t look entirely economically coherent,” she said. “Students aren’t too influenced by fee changes as they don’t pay fees upfront.”

Wood told Crikey the government would have to up its investment in the sector. 

“There will be pressure going forward on government spending to meet the growing need.”