When caring for patients gets competitive

Care work is the third most-chosen apprenticeship for young people in Switzerland

Who will be crowned the best care worker in Switzerland? With a looming staff shortage in nursing homes and hospitals, a high-stakes contest is a way to attract young people to the profession. 

This content was published on October 20, 2016

Rahel Pomaro’s face glistens with sweat in the bright lights as she prepares breakfast for her “patient”. On the other side of the glass, her friends and family watch anxiously, brandishing homemade flags and kerchiefs with her face printed on them. She glances at the clock to make sure she can finish all the tasks on her list before time is up.

She’s a competitor in the second-ever national skills competition for care workers – people who assist patients in nursing homes, hospitals and home care settings. In Switzerland, the profession is heavily female-dominated, and all of this year’s competition finalists are women. Whoever wins will have the chance to compete at next year’s world skills championships in Abu Dhabi. 

“The first two competitors this morning barely finished,” says Marlise Willareth, a professional care worker who is a judge at the event and helped develop the competition rules.

“Every candidate has to care for two patients, learn about the cases and make a plan,” Willareth explains. “She has two hours to complete her tasks but within that time she can decide how she wants to prioritise and plan.” 

One of the patients – actually professional actors hired for the job – spills jam on her walker, just as the second demands a drink of water. Pomaro expertly handles both situations with a smile.

High demand

This competition is being held at a regional career fair in canton St Gallen, and some teenagers with brochures in their hands stop to watch the action. This is the third most-chosen apprenticeship for young people in Switzerland, after commercial employees and IT professionals. But according to the latest report on health care worker supply and demand in Switzerland, graduating care workers will only cover 56% of those needed to work in the field until 2025, due largely to the country's ageing population.

“The interest is there but it's still not easy to recruit people because it does require certain competencies,” says Willareth. 

Then there’s the shift work and the mediocre pay for Switzerland, at about CHF4,000 ($4,071) per month. And it’s still largely viewed as a “women’s field” without much prestige, says Willareth. 

But the number of applicants for training places shows that it’s an attractive profession despite those hurdles, according to Urs Sieber, head of OdASanté, the association governing the care worker sector. For him, the main issues are creating enough training opportunities and finding the right candidates. 

“Every year, the demand for apprenticeships is greater than the offering,” he points out. “We could fill every position one to two times over with well-qualified candidates. If the image of the profession were bad, this wouldn't work.” 

How to judge?

Back on the competition floor, Pomaro has left the room to get something.

“Do you remember what she said her name was? I couldn’t hear it very well,” one of the patients asks the other. 

“No,” replies her roommate. “She said it too softly.”

The competition judges both make notes on their charts. 

Bedside manner and personal interaction with patients are also critical elements of the job, and there were doubts at first about whether such “soft skills” could be judged at all. 

“A lot of people said, this involves patients, how will you test those competencies, it's not possible to do that. It is very possible,” argues Willareth. “It's a question of relationships, how the care worker is organised and how she reacts to patients. And that's what makes it exciting.” 

A cheer breaks out among the crowd as Pomaro and her competitor, Livia Benesch, finish the competition. They both got through their tasks in the allotted two hours, but just barely. 

“It was quite stressful, I couldn’t find a lot of the things I needed,” Pomaro reflects. “It was different from my daily work, caring for two patients at the same time.” Because of the added challenge, she says she accidentally told one patient something some medical information about the other when asked, without thinking about it.

Pomaro's fans greet her after the competition

International stage

In the end, it’s another young woman, Irina Tuor, who wins the multi-day contest. She’ll likely be the one who heads to Abu Dhabi next year to take on other care workers from around the world. 

Alexandra Najer knows what awaits this year’s champion - she competed at an international level in São Paulo last year after having won the first-ever Swiss care workers’ competition. 

The equipment in Brazil was different, the actors playing patients spoke English instead of German, and there was a unique situation to deal with involving a dementia “patient” who saw imaginary men – all of which made competing on the international stage a challenge, says Najer. But she thinks it paid off. 

“I developed a lot of trust in myself,” she says. “Now, standing up and talking in front of people isn’t an issue for me at all anymore.” 

Today, Najer is putting those skills to good use by showing groups of potential apprentices around the competition floor during regular tours. It’s all part of the ongoing effort to raise the profile of care workers and put the career in the forefront of young people’s minds, says Sieber. 

“We sometimes fight with our image and with this skills championship we are trying to show that it's an attractive profession with lots of options.”

Do you think skills competitions are good ways to expose young people to a career? Let us know in the comments. 

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