Solution to care-worker shortage elusive

by Takeshi Kawamura

Kyodo News

In a room at the Bunkyo Ward office in Tokyo, five former care workers are undergoing a refresher course conducted by the Tokyo Welfare Manpower Center.

“Please tell the patient in advance to ‘raise your head’ — otherwise he will be surprised,” a lecturer says while showing a female trainee how to change the clothes of a person paralyzed on one side of his body.

The trainee had placed her hands at the head of the bed without saying anything.

“I thought I handled the job perfectly at my former workplace,” she says with a wry smile.

All five trainees used to work at care facilities and hospitals before switching to jobs unrelated to the medical field, such as working for Japan Post.

“When I happened to see an elderly person in trouble on a bus, I responded automatically. And I realized that I wanted to become a care worker once more,” one of the women says.

When the elderly care insurance system started in fiscal 2000, some 550,000 people were employed as care workers. The number increased to some 1.37 million by fiscal 2009. With the inexorable rise in the number of elderly people needing care, about 1.18 million more care workers will be required by fiscal 2025.

But the turnover rate for care workers in fiscal 2008 was 18.7 percent, compared with an average of 14.6 percent for all industries. Experts attribute the high rate to low wages resulting from successive lowering of nursing-care benefits, as well as the heavy physical burden. Many care facilities are struggling to find enough workers.

A survey by the Care Work Foundation found that the average monthly wage for a care worker in fiscal 2008 was ¥196,000; the average for all industries was ¥299,000.

According to an estimate by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, about 470,000 people were qualified as care workers in 2005, but some 200,000 — nearly 40 percent — were not employed in the sector and were listed as “potential care workers.”

The biggest challenge for care facilities suffering manpower shortages is how to encourage experienced workers to return after they quit.

The number of people seeking employment as care workers has risen due to the recession. There were more than 30,000 in January, compared with the monthly average of 25,268 for the preceding year.

But it is not clear if this trend will help care workers find a job and stay on. While poor economic conditions in the past led to a rise in the number of job seekers, an upturn in the economy could prompt care workers to switch to other jobs with better conditions.