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The shifting employment skills dietitians need

By Paula Goodyer

New dietetics graduates looking for work need more than a good knowledge of nutrition. They also need skills that will enable them to survive in private practice, and to adapt to a range of dietetics-related jobs, rather than one specific role.  

This was one of the findings of the Australian and New Zealand Dietetics Graduate Outcomes Survey published in this month’s Nutrition and Dietetics looking at employment outcomes for dietetics graduates four to six months after completing their degree in 2020. It highlights a shift in the employment landscape for dietitians - and a need for dietetics curricula to reflect this, says lead author Merran Blair from Monash University’s Department of Nutrition, Dietetics and Food. 

Some key points from the survey include:

  • At 4-6 months after employment, 75 per cent of graduates were employed, 60% of them in jobs that required their degree. This compares to 85 to 92 per cent of employment rates for all university graduates.
  • The most common field of dietetics employment was private practice.
  • Less secure employment, including contracts less than one year (full time and part time); casual and contractor positions represented 72 per cent of all jobs.

Although most respondents agreed their degree provided them with the knowledge for entry level nutrition and dietetics practice, they also nominated other skills that would have been helpful including private practice skills, job-seeing skills and preparation for diverse areas of practice.

Respondents also said that current university degrees lacked information about the reality of the job market for graduate dietitians.

“We’re at a pivotal point for the profession where work opportunities have shifted away from the traditional role of hospital dietitian. We need to know more about employment for dietitians post-graduation in order to inform competency-based education,” says Merran who did the study as part of her PhD research on the employability of graduate dietitians.

“While the numbers of dietitians employed in hospitals appears to be decreasing, the numbers of dietitians in private practice is growing. The common health problems people have now are chronic diseases, so more of their care happens outside the hospital, often through GP care plans. This means dietitians are more likely to see patients in private practice, often in GP or allied health clinics.”

So far so good - but positions in these clinics demand business skills including the ability to generate business, she says.   

“Private practice also requires high level counselling skills. It’s not just about telling people what to eat, but also about guiding them through the ebbs and flows of motivation. Although motivational interviewing and counselling are part of a dietetics degree, practical experience is important too and at the moment student placements in hospitals are still more common than placements in private practice.  Students need more exposure to private practice.” 

Dietetics students also need to be prepared for some level of income insecurity. Private practice might attract more dietitians than in the past, but the work can be precarious says Merran. Her study found that one third of the survey’s respondents had more than one job - a reflection of the casualisation of many jobs for dietitians.

There are predictions that work opportunities for dietitians are changing. ‘Towards 2030 - Re-imagining the future of nutrition and dietetics in Australia and New Zealand’ is a recent report from the Council of Deans of Nutrition and Dietetics Australia that identifies six emerging roles for nutrition professionals. They include food aficionados, diet optimisers, knowledge translators, equity champions, systems navigators and food systems activists, and change makers, activists and disruptors.

 “These are very different to the traditional silos of public health, hospitals and food service,” says Merran. “Preparing students for future jobs - many of which don’t exist yet - is challenging.  But giving them general skills like project management, communication and business skills that can be applied across a range of areas may make them better prepared for a changing work environment.

“Nutrition has a big impact on health and with their high level skills, dietitians can offer value in all settings; the more we have employed in every area of our society the better.”