A teacher and her students

We need more teachers and nurses. Or do we?

Our Thinking | insight



12 Minute Read


Share insight

Idea In Brief

Nuanced problem

There appears to be a critical shortage of nurses, midwives, teachers and early childhood educators and care (ECEC) workers. But as our analysis of the data demonstrates, the problem is more nuanced.

Adaptive challenge

While the challenge may be hard to define, for each workforce the shortage can be described as an adaptive challenge – an unresolved challenge often with inconsistent information and data, and with no obvious answer.

Path to progress

To make progress there needs to be access to local information, input from stakeholders from different sectors, and a commitment to experiment and learn. Progress comes from leading with questions, not solutions.

Many vital professions seem to be in critical shortage, including nurses, midwives, teachers and early childhood educators and care (ECEC) workers. The education and health sectors have been facing workforce pressures for several years, and the lingering impacts of the pandemic have intensified both the problem and the emotive narrative in the media.

At the same time, nurses, midwives, teachers and ECEC workers have faced increasing workload pressure characterised by growing work volume, stress and emotional toll.

There is a public perception that there is simply a shortage of workers. But as our analysis of the data demonstrates, the problem is more nuanced. In this article, we spell out the challenge and a pathway to finding solutions.

The data tells a complex story

From our work with government and employers in New South Wales and elsewhere, we have seen the challenges up close. There are some surface-level factors that link these four professions. They:

  • are predominantly public sector roles
  • are dominated by women
  • are particularly sought in regional, rural and remote areas
  • have experienced stagnant wage growth (although NSW last year provided historic pay rises to begin to rectify this)
  • have growing role expectations
  • face challenging working conditions.

However, the challenge facing these workforces is hard to define. Consider the incongruities in the following data points:

  1. Registered nurses are one of the most in demand professions nationally and across all states, but Australia has the most nursing graduates of any OECD country, enough to fill all in-demand positions.
  2. Midwives are reported as experiencing ”trauma and burnout”, caused by ”running between rooms” with “shortages of experienced midwives on every shift”. But a 2019 Australian Department of Health and Aged Care study found “with no adjustments to supply, the midwifery workforce will be in oversupply … [by] 12 per cent in 2030”.
  3. Teacher vacancies increased 11 per cent in NSW from May to August 2023, and teacher resignations outstripped teacher retirements for the first time. But a 2022 NSW parliamentary inquiry into teachers found there is adequate teacher supply to meet demand until at least 2025.
  4. Labour market data confirms the shortage for early childhood educators in NSW, though the ECEC workforce is difficult to quantify due to multiple entry pathways, the independent nature of ECEC centres, and no governing body with oversight of the ECEC workforce.

While the challenge may be hard to define, for each workforce the shortage can be described as an adaptive challenge – that is, an unresolved challenge often with inconsistent information and data, and with no obvious answer.

If we accept the workforce shortages are adaptive challenges, we believe the answer requires thinking in adaptive ways and not merely seeking technical solutions, like pay increases, more university positions or study subsidies alone.

Given the common features of the challenges, we think there is great benefit in cross-sector collaboration among policymakers, educators, academics and employers when grappling with these issues. By sharing knowledge and experiences and challenging each other’s perspectives they will be better placed to achieve enduring solutions.

There are common factors at play

There is abundant evidence of critical workforce challenges in health and education. We can see several intriguing similarities across these sectors when we look at key data for NSW:

Common themes underpin the outlined challenges

When we look at the issue across both the health and education sectors, several themes emerge:

Supply and demand are mismatched

Inability to meet demand is impacting the NSW community. In some areas, health services, schools and childcare centres do not have enough qualified and experienced staff to deliver health and education services that their communities need. For health, this can cause troubling instances for sick individuals who are unable to receive care or miss important diagnoses during preventative stages of illness. While for education, this can lead to sub-optimal educational attainment for young Australians.

But there is an oversupply of graduates that the NSW health and education systems cannot absorb into fulltime roles. Transitional training hurdles and maldistribution creates bottlenecks that leave graduates unemployed or underemployed and forced into other professions, particularly if they are not prepared to relocate.

Yet when looking to establish a workforce, attrition rates are alarming. Many people are choosing to leave these professions even once their career is established. This may be due to high levels of stress, excessive workload, and low relative remuneration.

Growing expectations and unmet demand mean communities miss out

Expectations on these roles have grown and changed, requiring more experienced staff. Teachers, nurses, midwives and ECEC workers face growing expectations on the responsibilities of their role. They must be ready, qualified, experienced, and prepared to work according to these greater societal expectations.

Shortages in rural, regional and some Sydney districts are acute. It is proving challenging to attract and retain professionals in rural and regional areas and within some rapidly growing Sydney districts. Despite financial incentives to move to these areas, there is often a lack of suitable infrastructure such as housing and employment for partners. This problem may be compounded by a relative shortfall in people from those areas choosing to gain professional qualifications. The limited number of existing professionals in these areas creates a negative feedback cycle as there are few people to assist in training and supporting new staff, disincentivising prospectives, trainees or graduates from relocating. The reality of fewer and less experienced staff, in conjunction with more complex health issues and illnesses that are often faced in regional and remote areas, can stress and over-extend new staff.

There is limited accurate local workforce information. Broad national trends need to be replaced with accurate local information for education providers and employers about local replacement (entry, exit and turnover) rates

These issues are on the radar of policymakers

These challenges have been critical to the agendas of policymakers in recent years. Thankfully there has been significant action.

In late 2022, Australia’s education ministers (national, state and territory), agreed to a National Teacher Workforce Action Plan, which sets out a pathway to addressing the teacher shortage. Education ministers have also endorsed the National Children’s Education and Care Workforce Strategy (2022-2031) to overcome the ECEC worker shortage. Similarly, the Productivity Commission is preparing a final report detailing “a path to universal early childhood education and care”. Meanwhile, the Australian Department of Health and Aged Care is currently developing a National Nursing Workforce Strategy.

Each of these plans and strategies has potential to make some impact on the problem. They also show the benefits of conversations across jurisdictions. But to be most effective, solutions need to be informed by local workforce information and go beyond technical best-practice in each individual sector and draw instead from cross-sector insights and collaboration.

Solutions that reflect a breadth of perspectives and resources are crucial amid increasing complexity. Central to these adaptive solutions are leaders who are expert in cross-sector collaboration and can combine perspectives, insights and experiences across many industries to facilitate answers.

Adaptive challenges need adaptive approaches

Our analysis of the problem suggests this is not a technical challenge, it is an adaptive one. This means that there is no clear solution, and it will not be solved by anyone’s expertise or authority alone. At the heart of an adaptive challenge is people – their values, mindsets and experiences.

To make progress on an adaptive challenge there needs to be access to local information, input from stakeholders from different sectors, and a commitment to experiment and learn. Progress comes from leading with questions, not solutions. Starting with questions will enable diverse input, synthesise evidence and encourage creative experimentation for system-wide progress.

While the proposed initiatives of policymakers and employers may result in progress, they leave untouched large cross-cutting solutions that rectify the systematic challenges faced by these workforces. These includes attracting workers to rural locations, improving the balance of roles and expectations, ameliorating challenging work conditions, improving remuneration and increasing job satisfaction.

These actions require wholesale workforce change, but if done correctly can bolster NSW’s critical workforces.

More system-wide progress would be made if cross-sector policymakers, educators, academics and employers came together to share their perspectives, as well as support and challenge each other. Only by creating the right forums to swap ideas, ones in which people can speak honestly and confidences will be respected, can genuine cross sector collaboration, challenge, and learning take place.

Get in touch touch to explore how we can overcome this adaptive challenge together.

Connect with Kelly Samson, Heidi Wilcoxon, Jenny Cleary, and Tom Levi on LinkedIn.

Prepared with input from Murray Smith, Shaneil D’Hary, Tony Fiddes, Jackson Ehlers, Sophie Hext, Steph Ryan and Corey Hibbert.