Don’t forget VET: a workforce suited for rural communities

  • Woman talking to a group of people with post-it notes on the wall behind

The Australian healthcare workforce is doing it tough, and none more so than in regional, rural and remote areas, which have been grappling with skills and workforce shortages for a long time. As noted by Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler earlier this year, there are no easy or quick solutions to the systemic challenges facing the health system, and progress will take time. While undoubtedly true, this trajectory makes it more pressing that the health sector seizes the current momentum for reform, to advocate for and apply policy solutions that are so acutely needed.

Matching and forecasting the needs, demands and supply of the health workforce is complex in any context. To meet current and future demand, it is essential to view the workforce through a lens that is holistic and positive, encompassing the skills required for prevention, wellness and care throughout the human life span. We need to be thinking of the workforce broadly – not just the health professionals, but the whole of the workforce that supports the sector.

The vocational education and training (VET) sector has a key role to play in creating solutions to these needs, a fact that is often underappreciated in national discussion around wide-ranging workforce shortages and burnout. After years of underinvestment and negative perceptions about career opportunities, governments at both state and federal levels are actively recognising the value of vocational training for delivering a productive and highly skilled workforce. This has been most reflected recently by the significant federal investment into additional VET placements for aged care workers.

VET programs are responsive to the complex and multidisciplinary needs of sectors like health. They offer one of the most accessible and accelerated pathways for a person to gain qualifications needed to join the health workforce. Graduates have the critical capacity to plug capability gaps in the workforce and support other health professions to deliver the best quality of care, at the top of their scope of practice. Their communities benefit from skills that can be adapted as health care evolves.

To gain these benefits, the need for more effective planning around current and future health workforce needs is clear, and requires collaboration from across the health and VET sectors, along with government. Collective input and a collaborative approach offer the best opportunity to strengthen the health sector and local communities, through coordinated responses to key issues such as our ageing population, consumer-directed funding and preventive health.

However, ensuring the VET system reflects geographical variations will be crucial. As has been seen through extensive experience within the health sector and beyond, effective programs cannot simply be transplanted from metro to regional areas with the expectation of equivalent outcomes. The needs, wants and practical considerations for people living in regional, rural and remote areas are diverse and may vary considerably from their urban counterparts. This requires locally attuned planning and implementation of programs, including VET courses, in order to meet the unique demographics of the communities they serve.

Given the mood for healthcare reform across the country, it is now more important than ever that there is effective collaboration between parties with an interest in workforce planning, to act as a source of intelligence on issues affecting the industry and push to ensure VET training meets employer needs. To ensure that we sustainably develop the workforce that the health sector needs, it is essential that planning proactively involves and is considerate of local needs. Embracing and enabling effective VET training in health care is one crucial step to easing challenges in regional health care and improving access to high-quality care for those living in regional communities.

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