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“As one door closes, another one opens”, so the saying goes. But if anything, the last twelve months have demonstrated that when doors (or in fact borders) close, the movement of much needed medical professionals throughout the country, becomes much more challenging.

It’s fair to say, that we have come a long way since the COVID-19 pandemic forced Australia into lockdown in March 2020. After a prolonged period of state-wide border restrictions that often lasted for months, lockdowns are becoming shorter, more confined to hotspots and targeted in their execution. Interstate travel is generally improving, with mandatory quarantine periods becoming less of a hinderance, except for Western Australia and Tasmania who continue to place hard borders at state level.

However, whilst the physical obstacles to travel, especially within Australia, appear to be less of a burden, the appetite to travel and work is still somewhat subdued. Many locums fear being stuck on a placement without being able to return home or to their next locum, which can be enough to reject an opportunity that would otherwise have been snapped up. For permanent positions, concerns over job security, is preventing potential candidates from moving as freely as they have in the past.

The lack of confidence in interstate travel combined with negligible international arrivals, has exaggerated an already overstretched and under-resourced industry. From occupational therapists and physiotherapists, to doctors, nurses and pharmacists, the health centres throughout Australia are struggling to recruit for much needed support from allied health and medical professionals.

Regional positions have always been harder to fill than metro counterparts, even with incentives and working holiday makers combining work and adventure to fill the void. But with international borders more or less closed, and capital cities such as Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane struggling to fill vacant positions, it is time for the industry to think more creatively about solutions.

Looking after our allied health and medical professionals

Whilst skills shortages and non-movement of medical professionals around Australia is certainly one of the biggest recruitment issues we face; our concern is always focussed on those who are available and able to work. Our primary aim is to ensure those who are available for locum and permanent placements are well looked after, not overworked and don’t succumb to the pressures of an already overstretched industry. According to Safework Australia, health and welfare workers were in the top five ‘most at risk’ occupations, and that was prior to COVID-19.

Locums’ confidence to be able to return home or get to the next placement should a lockdown be introduced, is the most frequent concern we hear from our candidates. Which is why the team at Aussie Locums make it our priority to ensure we know exactly where each candidate is placed, and how we can get them home quickly, should the need arise.

Working with our travel partners we respond quickly, organising travel and accommodation should the candidate need it. However, whilst being stuck is a concern for candidates, we have found that locums on a placement are more often than not, happy to extend their contract to remain at the location. This not only provides continuity of service for patients of the health service, but it avoids unnecessary travel or stress.

Our emphasis on Work Health and Safety not only empowered the team at Aussie Locums with Policies and Procedures for best practice, but it provides every candidate and client with the confidence in our ability to keep people safe. Our ‘candidate care’ mantra not only makes it easier to identify and resolve potential WHS issues, but it enables us to quickly and safely respond to the ever-changing nature of lockdowns and hot spots.

How the industry is adapting

With job security at the forefront of candidates’ minds, we have been working with our clients to help them showcase their strengths. Many of our clients have been able to grow and succeed through their ability to pivot in a variety of market conditions; which is not something employers generally highlight. For candidates, when they can see an employer has handled crises and supply issues in a way that not only meant they survive but thrive, it quickly puts their mind at ease.

We encourage our clients to explain how they responded to COVID-19 and highlight the processes they have in place. This is particularly comforting for locums who are concerned about getting home, but primarily want to ensure the host has an adequate COVID Safe Plan in place to protect them and their patients.

With supply of allied health and medical professionals tight at the moment, we have been working with our clients proactively to plan their recruitment or locum requirements well in advance. One of the benefits of working with a recruitment agency is that we know a lot of candidates, past and present that may or may not be actively looking for a new opportunity. However, when we know there is a good fit between the opportunity and the candidate, we can approach them to discuss an opportunity they may otherwise not have seen.

However, much more action is required at an industry level to resolve the skills shortages we are currently facing. For many overseas professionals with Equivalent Qualifications, transferring their registration to Australia has enabled them to work independently within their profession. However, as immigration has slowed, more clients are looking towards ‘limited registrations’ from countries that do not have a directly comparable education and certification process. The catch for clients is that those entering the Australian workforce with limited registrations require two to three years supervision, which is not always feasible.

Short term, an additional hurdle for overseas professionals is actually securing flights into Australia. Even if they are able to secure a visa and accreditation from the appropriate body; if they can’t get here, they can’t work.

The implications of skill shortages

At the moment, candidates are seeking job security combined with a competitive salary or hourly rate. And, whilst the need for security reigns supreme, this has prevented pay rates from escalating out of control. However, with vaccine roll outs well underway, these concerns may subside, and if the skill shortages continue, then the labour costs will surely soar.

Whilst comparatively speaking it is harder to recruit medical professionals in Australia than ever before, the strength of our relationships with clients and candidates, combined with our promise to work in the best interests of everyone we deal with, gives us confidence in finding successful outcomes, even during COVID-19.