An Irish welcome: how Australia recruits doctors and nurses

Recruitment of Irish nurses leads to complaint of ‘unfairness’ from the Australian nursing unions

 

A cartoon in the West Australian newspaper depicting Irish nurses and a leprechaun doing a jig at the bedside of two hospital patients caused a bit of a stir last August, when the Facebook group Irish People Living in Australia, which has more than 30,000 members, made a complaint to the Australian Press Council for the “ill-mannered and offensive” stereotyping of Irish nurses.

While the controversy appeared to centre on the portrayal of tired cliches, the roots of the row ran much deeper than the cartoon. Earlier that week, the same newspaper had reported on the recruitment of 150 Irish nurses by St John of God Healthcare, in a process the Australian Nursing Federation said unfairly prioritised foreign nurses over Australians.

The Catholic not-for-profit group said it recruited in Ireland because it predicted not being able to fill all the positions available at its three new hospitals.

Nursing shortages have been widely reported across Australia in recent years. In 2012, a report by Health Workforce Australia, an advisory authority to the Australian government, predicted a shortfall of almost 110,000 nurses – or 27 per cent of the overall demand – by 2025. The shortage of doctors was less acute, at about 2,700, or 3 per cent of the total. The shortages are felt most in rural and remote regions.

In order to meet their recruitment needs, both public and private healthcare providers have been looking abroad. Irish-trained doctors and nurses are favoured as Ireland is one of five designated “competent authority” countries, where qualifications are recognised by the medical board as comparable with Australian standards.

About 15 per cent of nurses practising in Australia last year either obtained their initial nursing qualification or were born in another country, with approximately 3,000 new nurses arriving every year from abroad under the employer-sponsored 457 visa scheme.

In the year to June, 527 Irish “healthcare and social assistance workers” moved to Australia on these 457 visas.While this is more than double the number who arrived in 2006/07, the figure has dropped quite sharply in the last year, down 32 per cent from 771 in 2012/13.

The numbers may be on a downward trend, but the total figure in the eight years since 2006/07 is a staggering 4,052 – and this excludes the thousands more who are employed on other visa types, such as the working holiday visa.

Australian nurses unhappy

Nursing unions across Australia are unhappy with the recruitment of foreign nurses under the 457 visa programme as a “quick fix”. They claim about 3,000 nursing graduates – a similar figure to the number of foreign nurses recruited – were unable to find a job after finishing their studies earlier this year.

“I object to overseas nurses being seen as a first resort, rather than a last resort,” secretary of the Australian Nursing Federation Mark Olson told the West Australian. “It’s short-sighted if employers are constantly looking to poor economies when they can pick up graduates in Australia.”

But employers in both the public and private system say it is looking not for freshly graduated nurses and doctors, but for those with experience.

Speaking to The Irish Times on a recruitment trip to Dublin last month, Cheryl Grigsby, the manager of the WA Department of Health’s international workforce supply bureau, said it was searching for senior qualified health professionals, preferably with at least two to five years’ experience in a specialty area.

“We are not looking for any junior doctors, or any recently graduated nurses,” she said, adding that the WA healthcare system shares most of the same issues with the rest of Australia. Workforce shortfalls differ between states but the significant shortages are the same.

“In nursing, we are particularly short of midwives, and dual-trained nurses with general registration plus midwifery and/or other specialties such as neonatal, emergency medicine, intensive care, coronary care, perioperative, mental health and paediatric oncology.”

The WA Department of Health, as well as private hospitals in the state, are looking for nurses and doctors with an interest in working in rural and remote settings.

Some specialties are in particular demand, but with $7 billion (€4.9bn) being spent upgrading existing health facilities or building new hospitals in the public system, the WA Department of Health will accept expressions of interest from any doctor interested in migrating, Grigsby says.

Limited opportunities

Opportunities for nurses are more limited, unless they have a specialty. “We just don’t take their names because there are just too many and we have to manage their expectations.”

Lifestyle is the main draw for Irish doctors and nurses whom Grigsby recruits, but working conditions and salary compare very favourably. The annual wage for registered nurses and midwives in Western Australia begins at $60,734 (€42,047) in the public system.

Asked if Australian healthcare employers are aware of discontent among Irish doctors in particular about long working hours and falling rates of pay, she says: “Yes, we do hear it. Are we opportunists? Yes, possibly, but there is more to it than that. People have to be ready to go.

“There’s a lot they need to consider, moving country, job, your family, career pathways . . . I have spoken to some nurses and clinicians for many years before they finally make the decision.”

She dismisses the claim that foreign nurses and doctors are being unfairly prioritised over Australians, emphasising that under tighter 457 visa restrictions introduced this year, employers are required to prove they have exhausted the local labour market before recruiting from overseas.

“That is to be fair to those who have studied and live in Australia,” she says.

Recently qualified doctors and nurses may still be able to find temporary work in Australia through agencies, and there are limited places on graduate schemes for overseas workers from Ireland.

“Our health system has been enriched by having international graduates come to work in our system; it is healthy to do so . . . But the days of junior doctors and junior nurses finding [permanent] work without any experience is pretty much over.”

To apply for any advertised position in Australia, nursing candidates must be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia, which assesses overseas qualifications, skills and experience. See nursingmidwiferyboard.gov.au.

For more information about working as a doctor in Australia, see doctorconnect.gov.au

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