Background Individuals who have recently completed accredited courses and are eligible to register as a nurse in Australia are often referred to as not being 'work-ready' by clinically based colleagues. This project identified the level of competence that can be reasonably expected of a newly registered nurse (RN) graduating in Australia. The research was undertaken using the necessary skills identified by Crookes and Brown in 2010. Methods A consensus methodology using a modified Delphi technique invited experienced nurses to identify the level of competency expected by the new RN in each of the skills areas. Results More than half of respondents did not believe that new graduates could practice independently in 18 of the 30 skills areas. There were only four skills areas where more than two thirds of the respondents believed the new graduate could operate independently. Conclusions There is a lack of clarity about the level of competency of the newly graduating registered nurse in Australia. The profession and employers need clarity regarding the areas and level of competence that can reasonably be expected of a newly graduated RN. Utilising the findings of this research will enable the skills and competencies to be integrated into eligibility to practice programmes. Further research needs to be undertaken to review the foci of nursing preparation programmes to meet the needs of novice practitioners and the health care consumer population.