2 February 2024

Griffith fruit picker becomes aged care worker in boost for industry crippled by labour shortage

| Oliver Jacques
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Francina Wilikai holds daughter outside Pioneer Lodge sign

Francina Wilikai with daughter Denisha outside her new employer Pioneers Lodge. Photo: TAFE NSW.

A Pacific Islander who came to Griffith to pick fruit has launched a new career as an aged care worker, boosting a struggling industry while introducing a new form of dance to 90-year-old residents.

Mum-of-two Francina Wilikai was a casino dealer in her native Solomon Islands before moving to the Riverina on her quest for a better life.

She initially took up a job picking oranges, but wanted to get into a more caring profession.

“I came across a Fijian lady in Sydney; she told me she was working in aged care and encouraged me to study,” Ms Wilikai said.

“We don’t have aged care facilities in the Solomon Islands – it’s the children’s job to look after their parents into old age.

“I love helping people. I love making them laugh; it’s my passion.”

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Ms Wilikai enrolled in the Certificate III in Individual Support (Ageing) course at TAFE NSW Griffith in early 2023.

“I started my class in February and I was working at Pioneers Lodge in July. I was so surprised. In the Solomon Islands, you have to finish your study before you get a job, but here I can work and study at the same time.

“I’m the only one here in Australia, so I have to support my family at home. This job allows me to send money back to them.”

The 31-year-old is also secretary of a local Griffith Solomon Islands community group.

“Our group does traditional cultural dances, so I had the idea of bringing them in to entertain the Pioneers Lodge residents. We wore our grass skirts and did our thing for them; they loved it so much and didn’t want us to stop.”

She now plans to enrol in a Diploma of Nursing at TAFE next year to become an enrolled nurse in aged care facilities.

Her career choice is also good news for an industry that has been grappling with a chronic labour shortage over the past five years.

A report by think tank the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) says there will be a shortage of at least 110,000 direct aged care workers within the next decade unless urgent action is taken to boost the workforce.

“We will need at least 17,000 more direct aged care workers each year in the next decade just to meet basic standards of care,” CEDA chief economist Jarrod Ball says.

According to CEDA, if we do not build the workforce, older Australians will be left in the lurch, placing an untenable caring burden on working families.

This is one of the reasons the NSW Government is encouraging people to enrol in caring-related TAFE courses, many of which can be studied for free or at low cost by eligible residents.

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TAFE NSW teacher Debbie Healey said the industry offered the rare combination of job security and satisfaction, with graduates leaving with the practical skills and work experience to hit the ground running.

“The aged care industry is awash with jobs at the moment and if you love helping people, it can be the perfect profession,” Ms Healey said.

“You really are making a difference in a person’s life and helping older people retain dignity as they age.”

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