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Is a Nursing Shortage Placing Australia’s Healthcare Sector at Risk?

Australia’s healthcare sector is growing rapidly, creating thousands of opportunities for highly skilled job seekers. Can Australia find enough workers to meet the increasing demand for healthcare services?

Key points:
  1. The healthcare sector is one of Australia’s largest industry groups, accounting for 10% of job advertisements.
  2. Nursing makes up 30% of healthcare job postings, roles that can be difficult to fill.
  3. An ageing population has led to greater demand for most healthcare services. Postings for three-quarters of healthcare jobs are higher now than they were in 2015.  

The healthcare sector is one of Australia’s largest and fastest growing industries. It directly employs 8% of the Australian workforce and accounts for 10% of job postings in 2017. Australia’s ageing population is driving growth across the healthcare sector. More workers are needed to meet the growing demand for healthcare services. In some cases–most notably nursing–that’s proving difficult.

To assess demand for healthcare workers, we used Indeed data on job postings to identify the occupations that are growing most rapidly and those in highest demand. Here’s what we found:

  • Nurses account for 30% of healthcare job postings. It is not only ranked number one among healthcare professions, but also has the highest number of job postings for any occupation in Australia. Nursing in Australia faces severe shortages, with employers struggling to find suitable candidates.
  • Healthcare managers are also in high demand, accounting for around 13% of job postings, followed by general practitioners at 9.2% and health-related social workers at 5.8%.
  • The fastest-growing occupations are dentists, up 92% since 2015, followed by general practitioners, up 91%, and pharmacists, up 89%.
  • The number of job opportunities has increased in around three-quarters of healthcare occupations since 2015.
Recent developments in healthcare employment

Although the Australian healthcare system is highly complex and often inefficient, it still ranks among the world’s best. It is a complicated mix of public and private organisations, tax incentives and subsidies; financed largely by the Commonwealth government, but managed by the states. In 2017, the industry employed 960,000 people, around 8% of the Australian labour force, making it the nation’s fifth-largest industry. Its workforce is highly skilled and it consistently delivers world-class health outcomes.

Over the past decade, employment in healthcare has climbed 4% a year, compared with 1.5% across the rest of the economy. That trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future as the share of Australia’s population in retirement rises further.

In 2017, the number of healthcare job postings on the Indeed website was 32% higher than in 2015. Despite a seasonal dip in early 2018, healthcare jobs now account for around 10% of Indeed job postings. During that period, job advertisements increased in around three-quarters of healthcare occupations.

Line graph titled “Healthcare now accounts for 10% of Australian job postings.” With a vertical axis ranging from 0 to 12, Indeed tracked healthcare job postings as a share of all postings along a horizontal axis ranging from 2015 to 2018. In 2017, the number of healthcare job postings on the Indeed website was 32% higher than in 2015. Caption added post-publication.

Around 30% of these postings were for registered nurses. Nursing is not only the top-ranked healthcare occupation, but also has more job postings than any other occupation in Australia. Since all these healthcare workers need supervision and guidance, 13% of job postings in the field were for healthcare managers. General practitioners, the first call for most sick people, are also well represented, accounting for 9% of job advertisements in 2017.

Interestingly, many of the healthcare occupations in highest demand are also the fastest growing. Job postings for general practitioners per million postings have almost doubled since 2015. Occupational therapists and sonographers also feature in the top ten occupations for both postings and growth.

Advertisements for dentists and related occupations such as prosthodontists and orthodontists are also growing rapidly. Unlike many health services, dental care in Australia is largely financed via private health insurance or by patients paying out of pocket rather than through the public healthcare system.

Table titled “Healthcare job opportunities in Australia (2017.)” Indeed share of healthcare jobs and growth since 2015 among various occupations. 30.2% of healthcare job postings were for registered nurses. Caption added post-publication.

Trends in healthcare employment are a pure numbers game. Strong population growth and an ageing population boost demand for healthcare services. Hospitals and other healthcare organisations need more of almost every type of worker to meet that demand. It begs the question: Can Australia find enough highly skilled workers to meet rising demand for healthcare services? At least in the case of nursing, the answer appears doubtful. Let’s take a closer look at the nursing shortage.

The nursing shortage in Australia is severe

Nurses play a pivotal role in any well-functioning healthcare system. When you hear that a hospital has a ‘shortage of beds,’ it rarely means it has no place to put people. What it really signifies is that the hospital doesn’t have enough nurses to care for the patients in those beds. When there is a shortage of nurses, people who need medical care get put on waiting lists or turned away altogether.

Unfortunately, the nursing shortage in Australia is a chronic condition. High staff turnover forces many hospitals to advertise almost constantly for new nurses. Searches for nursing jobs improved during 2017, up 12% compared with a year earlier, but that is probably not enough to relieve existing shortages. Finally, nursing jobs typically attract relatively few clicks, which may make it difficult to find suitable candidates.

Line chart titled “Searches for nursing up 12% in 2017 but shortages remain.” With a vertical axis ranging from 0 to 15,000, Indeed tracked the searches for nursing jobs per million searches along a horizontal axis ranging from 2015 to 2018. Searches for nursing jobs improved during 2017, up 12% compared with a year earlier. Caption added post-publication.

A report by the Department of Jobs and Small Business confirms the lack of suitable candidates for many advertised nursing jobs. Finding the right candidate is particularly difficult in Victoria (0.7 suitable candidates per job), Queensland (1.1 suitable candidates) and New South Wales (1.8 suitable candidates). Most states have been plagued with shortages over the past decade, although these have recently eased in South Australia and Western Australia.

In a 2014 report, the Department of Health projected a shortfall of 85,000 nurses by 2025, increasing to 123,000 by 2030. Over time, the deficit could undermine Australia’s healthcare system. That’s particularly the case now that Australia no longer accepts many nurses from overseas. The share of nursing job searches from other countries reached almost 12% in 2017, yet the number of skilled visa holders working as nurses has fallen by almost two-thirds since its peak in 2013.

Line chart titled “Hospitals relying less on skilled migration to fill shortages.” With a vertical axis ranging from 0 to 5,000, Indeed tracked the nursing skilled visa holders in Australia along a horizontal axis ranging from 2010 to 2018. The share of nursing job searches from other countries reached almost 12% in 2017. Caption added post-publication.

The healthcare sector sits at the heart of a far-reaching social and economic change taking place in Australia. Along with social assistance and residential care services, healthcare is where the impact of an ageing population is felt most keenly. Increasing demand for healthcare services has created opportunities for thousands of job seekers, but the highly skilled nature of these roles creates risks of shortages.