The full impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic upon both the existing and future health workforce will not be fully understood for some time. Perhaps what is more appreciated now than ever before, however, is the critical need for skilled workers at all levels within health, in entry level to senior positions and from clinical to non-clinical support roles such as business administration and technology, health services operations and personal care and support.
Prior to the pandemic, significant skills and workforce challenges already existed within the health industry, which required ongoing skills and workforce development interventions. For rural, regional and remote communities, there are added complexities that need to be considered in any workforce development and skilling initiatives. These include the vast distances between communities and services, small local populations with diverse health needs, and a comparatively small health workforce in rural and remote locations. Service demand drivers in rural and remote areas are also different to those in metropolitan areas and include large distances, inconsistent economic conditions, transient health workforces, inequitable access to health professionals and services and a higher proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with complex health needs.
The need to promote a sustainable ‘grow your own’, skilled health workforce has been recognised by the Queensland government with their funding of projects like the Health Education to Employment Project (HEEP) and the Gateway to Industry Skills program for the health industry (Gateway).
Both the HEEP and Gateway projects are focused upon building the future health workforce in Queensland - working with schools and students to promote understanding of the broad range of career opportunities available to those interested in working in the health sector. This includes both vocational education and training (VET) and tertiary pathways, for both clinical and non-clinical roles.
The HEEP project, which was undertaken by CheckUP in 2019, created an interactive website - Choose Your Own Health Career (CYO). The CYO website was developed for students, parents, VET Officers and teaching staff and contains detailed career pathways into a number of health roles including pathology, allied health assistance, nursing, dental assisting, mental health support and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health practitioner roles. CYO also includes other support roles which may be found in a health setting, including business administration, human resources, food services and maintenance.
In addition to industry-identified priority career pathways, the CYO website also contains a number of job profiles – with detailed role descriptions, information about likely work environments, personal attributes and starting salaries – as well as various personal stories shared by young Queenslanders who commenced their health careers via a VET pathway.
The Gateway to Industry Schools program, which CheckUP commenced in March 2020, is focused upon connecting schools with industry to improve understanding of the vast range of roles available within the health industry, particularly for students who may be considering undertaking a health qualification whilst still at school and/or pursuing further tertiary study in a health discipline post-school. It also aims to increase experiential learning opportunities for students, where available, and will offer professional development to school VET Officers and other teaching staff.
Initiatives such as these are not only timely (and arguably overdue) but they will also have positive impacts, particularly upon regional Queensland where the demand for health services is continually increasing. The health care and social assistance industry currently employs 14.4% of regional Australians and will be the largest and fastest growing industry by 2023 – increasing by more than 250,300 jobs, with 34% of this growth in regional areas. Health services are not only critical for wellbeing and quality of life for those living in rural, regional and remote areas but they can also have positive flow on effects for the economic development of a region.
Addressing workforce and skills shortages within the health industry also provides opportunities to tackle some of the key socio-economic determinants of health – education and employment. This is particularly relevant for disadvantaged groups including youth, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
By introducing students to education, training and employment opportunities in the health sector, initiatives like the HEEP and Gateway projects will not only strengthen the health workforce but will also improve health outcomes for those who are already experiencing disadvantage.