In every developed country, the nursing workforce is aging – in Australia, over half of all nurses are aged 45 or older, and there’s a predicted critical shortfall less than a decade away.
Although this is well known, our government is not addressing the issue – though more students are being accepted into nursing degree programs (including Masters-level courses for applicants with an undergraduate degree in another discipline), funding for an intern-like graduate year has been slashed. This is a national problem, but Victoria has the highest number of placement shortfalls – last year over 800 graduates were left without a program placement (something I’ve touched on previously).
Like all degrees, nursing and midwifery are subsidised by the government – student fees only pay part of the course delivery cost. Yet, after investing tens of thousands of dollars in each graduate, the governments in every state are funding fewer graduate positions for nurses and midwives. Though not mandatory, without a graduate year it becomes increasingly difficult for inexperienced nurses to find even casual work, and it’s even harder for new midwives.
Instead of investing in local graduates, we’re filling shortfalls with 457 visa holders.
In the short-term, graduate year programs are expensive – newly-qualified nurses need supervision, including supernumerary time with a more experienced nurse, and have paid study days. Importing nurses who don’t need that investment looks economically advantageous.
And, though employment conditions are the same regardless of origin, nurses on 457 visas are less likely to know their rights and entitlements, or to take action if those rights and entitlements are curtailed – in all industries there are cases of 457 visa holders being under-paid, assigned longer hours, heavier work loads, and less leave time than they’re entitled to. There’s valid concern that any kind of protest, or even query, will see their visa revoked.
Failing to invest in our own graduates harms our profession, and our public. We cannot staff our hospitals solely with experienced local nurses supplemented by overseas-trained nurses – there aren’t enough, for a start. There will be decreasing incentive for students to study nursing or midwifery in Australia if they know that the odds of them then being able to work are lower every year. And without the equivalent of three months of full-time work, they’re ineligible to re-register, meaning every year Australia is losing hundreds of the next generation of nurses and dozens of midwives – nurses and midwives whose education we’ve already paid for.
We all benefit from the experience and perspectives of nurses and midwives from overseas, and many Australian nurses spend a few years overseas, particularly in the UK; reciprocity’s fair.
457 visas are appropriate when there’s no local skill; when it comes to nursing, midwifery, and many other industries, we have the people – we just don’t have a government prepared to invest in them.