The problem of a chronic skills shortage in a number of professional fields, healthcare being among the most notable, has proved confounding to successive governments.
One of the most prominent measures to address it is the Voluntary Bonding Scheme, a government-led, incentive-based payment programme designed to keep medical, midwifery, nursing and other health graduates in New Zealand and working in hard-to-staff communities and specialties.
The scheme is showing measurable signs of success, but government initiatives must be matched by private business partnerships that offer graduates a clear path to independent practice ownership and the kind of success that we, a nation of small and medium enterprises, seek out.
In the past month, our company Visique has cemented an agreement with ANZ that offers potential practice owners - both optometrists and dispensing opticians - the necessary financial support to open a business, and ongoing assistance as it grows.
As an established New Zealand-owned cooperative, we currently have 62 practices around the country, in cities and smaller towns. When you factor in the presence of several multinational franchises, it may seem that our population is well-serviced by optometry specialists, but that isn't the case.
In fact, we have not only an aging population whose eye health needs are rocketing by the year, but an aging workforce of optometrists with enormous expertise but without a sufficient crop of talented, trained young professionals to factor into succession planning.
Of the 55 or so new optometrists who graduate each year with the Bachelor of Optometry degree at the University of Auckland, around half head overseas, some permanently. Those who stay have enormous medical knowledge and prowess, but have not been taught how to run a thriving business.
As the country's largest optometry cooperative we have long fostered a mentoring programme that allows older professionals to give new practice owners business guidance as they establish their careers; similar mentorships occur in many other companies and industries.
What remains absent as many prospective professionals emerge from our tertiary institutions is a clear and present opportunity to realize their aspirations of career autonomy without taking undue financial risk. This is where partnerships become essential, giving graduates access not only to established optometrists but successful business owners and advisers who can share their acumen.
The University of Auckland, wanting to see its alumni go on to great things, supports our initiative, and other education providers would likely take a similar view.
Financing agreements such as that between Visique and ANZ are not onerous for either party, but they can open up channels that might otherwise remain restricted, and have demonstrable flow-on effects on consumers and the health system. In the past 20 years, and particularly since the GFC, there have arisen greater financial obstacles to business establishment, and this trend is not limited to the optometry field.
It is essential that as the healthcare cost burden increases through the 21st century, the pressure on the taxpayer to maintain skill levels is eased, and equally important that the quality and supply of service in communities does not falter.
People in smaller and more remote communities must not find good healthcare slipping out of their reach, and our best and brightest must be given the necessary guidance and support to realize their dreams here in New Zealand.