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Dr John Smithson, senior lecturer at James Cook University, with students. Photo: Supplied

Postgraduate study unlocks professional advancement: opinion

Job opportunities for nurses are growing faster than the workforce as a whole, and nurses with postgraduate qualifications will reap the greatest rewards as the health industry expands and becomes more complex.

The evolution of the industry is being driven largely by demographic change, particularly the ageing of the Australian population and the rising morbidity of chronic disease. As a nation, we are getting older and need more healthcare. At the same time, digital disruption is creating extraordinary new options for patient care, which nurses will need the technical know-how to implement and manage.

These are the major insights to emerge from The Future of Work: Occupational and Education Trends in Nursing in Australia, a new report by Deloitte Access Economics. The report says the nursing workforce is likely to grow by 2.8 per cent a year between 2016–17 and 2021–22, when it will employ 354,000 nurses.

Among these, nurses who invest in postgraduate study in their field will command a salary premium. Deloitte predicts that in 2021–22, nurses who hold postgraduate qualifications will be earning $111,235 a year.

Deloitte’s research examined present and future job numbers in five related occupations: registered nurses, registered midwives, nurse managers, nurse educators and researchers, and general managers in the healthcare and social assistance industry.

In 2016–17, these occupations employed about 308,000 people, so at least another 46,000 will be needed to fill all the jobs that will be on offer in 2021–22.

In fact, Deloitte cites the Australia’s Future Health Workforce – Nurses: Overview Report, published by Health Workforce Australia in 2014, which projected a shortfall of 85,000 nurses by 2025.

Among the five occupations, demand for general managers in the health industry is, for example, forecast to rise by 2.8 per cent. By comparison, jobs growth in the overall Australian workforce is forecast to track along at just 1.5 per cent a year.

Postgraduate study unlocks income potential
The key to making the most of this growth and job opportunities is postgraduate study. The Deloitte Access Economics report points towards data from the latest census, which shows workers with postgraduate qualifications in the five nursing occupations were earning an average of $95,391 in 2016–17.

Ignoring demographics and experience – nurses with a postgraduate qualification earned 45 per cent more than the average 2016–17 income of those employed in nursing occupations without postgraduate education. This difference significantly affects an individual’s life-long remuneration. That is a very healthy payoff for pursuing further education in the form of postgraduate study.

Modern nursing demands skills development
An adaptation in nursing roles and responsibilities will be required to fulfil the needs of an ageing Australian population and other demographic changes. It may be difficult to meet the expected increase in demand for health-related services due to labour shortages across all segments of the healthcare workforce, though the size and comparatively broad knowledge and skill base of the nursing profession means that they are in a good position to fill this difference between healthcare workforce demand and supply.

The growing demand for healthcare may also result in a greater reliance on nursing assistants to support the work of enrolled and registered nurses. Nurses’ effective management of all nursing resources, and their participation in collaborative care arrangements with medical and allied health colleagues, contribute to efficient and effective patient care. This trend is already being observed in the disability and aged care sectors.

Nurses who are trained to deliver advanced clinical care also play a critical role in Australia’s rural and geographically isolated regions, as well as other under-serviced areas such as metropolitan nursing homes and correction services. Nurses in these environments are commonly the initial and only regular health contact patients and residents have, so the nurses are often the primary carer as well as the sole referral to medical and allied health colleagues. Given the diverse range of care requirements and patient needs that are likely to arise in such contexts, having a mix of generalist, specialist and extended nursing skills is particularly important for these more independent roles.

Demand grows for leadership skills
Postgraduate study has the dual benefit of career advancement as well as improved retention of mid-career nurses in the profession. Senior leadership and management roles in nursing are typically occupied by more experienced nurses, many of whom are now in the later stages of their career and nearing retirement. As the pool of these experienced senior nurse leaders, managers and clinicians decline, opportunities for early and mid-career nurses to move in to these senior roles are increasing.

While some nurses may acquire the necessary skills through years of experience and on-the-job training, postgraduate study can accelerate the acquisition of high-demand skills and attributes in areas such as advanced patient assessment, diagnostic reasoning, pharmacology, therapeutics, financial and human resource management, and leadership.

Nurses will also need to acquire skills in data management. Patient and clinical activity data can be used in a wide range of health and medical settings, including predictive analytics to forecast patient demand and to support medical decisions including diagnosis, intervention and triaging of care. As the volume of data rapidly expands in electronic health and medical records, nurses will need to develop skills in data management, security and patient privacy to make the most of this information.

At the end of the day, no matter how technically complex nursing becomes, it will remain a labour-intensive sector requiring large cohorts of skilled, sensitive and dedicated individuals. Fundamentally a ‘people business’, it will demand more and more professional nurses who are prepared to invest in their own talents and skills to give their best to those in their care.

Dr John Smithson is a senior lecturer in the College of Healthcare Sciences and the Centre for Nursing and Midwifery Research at James Cook University. He is also a member of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Nursing & Midwifery Education & Research Capacity Building, JCU.

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