Recently, the Government of Ontario announced free tuition and other college costs for nurses wanting to upskill to work in critical care areas of hospitals. The province estimates that approximately 600 registered nurses will complete their upskilling by this spring. Alberta recently signed an agreement with the Philippines to encourage nurses seeking international opportunities to consider that province, and is providing financial, educational and licensing assistance to make relocating easier.
These are smart tools for attracting and retaining nurses when we urgently need them, but we also need a strategy to bring back nurses who have left the field. Across the country, burnout and retirement have resulted in experienced nurses walking out of hospitals and never looking back. While many provinces are working hard to find new nurses to replace them, there is something we can be doing right now to get nurses to come back.
Nova Scotia has been investing in ‘travel nurses.’ These are private-contract nurses, sometimes referred to as ‘agency’ nurses, who are being offered higher wages and, perhaps more importantly, greater flexibility in scheduling. These nurses are flown into communities for short- or long-term contracts in public hospitals and long-term care homes. It is a very attractive model for experienced nurses who want to work and help people, but who also value the sanctity of their set days off. The very nature of contract super commuting means you can’t be called in during your vacation. For travel nurses, off means off.
While some nurses’ unions have expressed concern about this model, we have supported super commuting in unionized environments in other sectors for years, including in the oil and gas industry on critical projects that needed to scale up quickly. In addition to helping hospitals scale up quickly, this model can be used to keep highly skilled and experienced nurses from quitting the field or retiring early. It can help respond to the urgent demand we are seeing across Canada. And, if done properly, it can attract experienced nurses who have already left to come back to the field.
So, what does “doing it properly” entail? It can be difficult for anyone to come into a new community for work with limited support. But this model of super commuting has been used in the oil and gas and mining industries for decades, and we have learned a lot of lessons and developed best practices. The first lesson is we need to secure good housing for workers travelling into a community. Next, we need to provide travel, not just to the community, but within it by taking the guess work out of navigating a new community that may not have reliable transit. Then connect with them local supports to help them feel like they belong.
The nurses’ unions aren’t wrong when they refer to travel nurses as a bandage solution. But the good news about our model of super commuting is that it is more likely to result in workers choosing to settle down in their new community permanently.
As governments across the country grapple with supporting the health-care system, now is the time for innovative labour mobility solutions that match nurses willing to super commute with communities in need of their skills.