Despite (or because of?) pandemic, students are flocking to nursing

Despite pandemic-induced grueling work schedules and stressful work environments, nursing programs have never been as popular. New nurses are coming into the profession with a caring attitude and practical and financial matters top of mind.

Applications to registered nursing (RN) programs in Ontario rose 17.6 per cent from 2020 to 2021. Nursing school applications were also up 30 per cent this year at the University of British Columbia and British Columbia Institute of Technology.

Kristen Jones-Bonofiglio, director and associate professor at the School of Nursing at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., says people are attracted to nursing because it’s a calling to help others and make a difference; it’s a professional career that offers opportunities and diversity of work; and it’s a good-paying job with lots of job availability. Lakehead received 875 applications in 2021 for 200 spots.

In the U.S., more than 67,000 qualified nursing school applicants were turned away in 2020 from baccalaureate RN programs due to a lack of qualified faculty, clinical study sites, classroom space and budget constraints.

Cole Woytiuk, who graduated from the University of Saskatchewan as an RN five months ago and has two jobs, says he chose the profession because he can provide direct patient care and work both at the bedside and in the community. Every second weekend, he travels seven hours from his main job – a community health nursing role at Big River First Nation in northern northwest Saskatchewan – to the southeast corner of the province, where he works up to 24-hour shifts in the Arcola Health Centre Emergency Room.

Nikki Villanueva-Rafanan, who graduated as a registered practical nurse in 2019, also works two jobs – both part-time – in hospitals in London, Ont. The hours add up to at least 30 a week. She’s also enrolled full-time in the RN degree program at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“There is absolutely a nursing shortage. I get calls every day to work even more hours than I’m already working … I have finals coming up, I try to study, try to go to work, it’s a lot …. I’m trying to limit it to 30 hours,” says Villanueva-Rafanan. But “when I help a patient, and I help their family get through a traumatic event in hospital, to be able to know I helped them through that process, it makes you feel like you’re actually doing something in life.”

Villanueva-Rafanan knew how competitive it would be to get into the RN program, and the prestige of getting in is one of the reasons the number of applications keeps going up, she says.

To qualify for admission at MacEwan University in Edmonton, for example, its nursing website says applicants need a “higher minimum overall average than high 80s to mid 90s.”

“And there’s a little bit of that hero aspect from the pandemic for the new people that are coming in,” says Lora Sliman, a third-year nursing student at MacEwan. “Now that they’re seeing exactly what nurses can do … even when times were tough, even when they were short-staffed, even when they didn’t have the proper supplies to keep themselves safe. They still showed up to work to make everyone else better.”

Nursing is also universal, Sliman says. You get your degree in Canada, but you can work anywhere in the world. And it’s easy to transfer your basic set of skills into various different fields of nursing, she says, from medical surgery, to ICU, to maternity nursing. “Going into this profession, you have a guaranteed job at the end of the program.”

Despite pandemic-induced grueling work schedules and stressful work environments, nursing programs have never been as popular.

Job vacancies for RNs and registered psychiatric nurses were up 85.8 per cent over the past two years. In the U.S., it is projected that 1.2 million new RNs will be needed by 2030 to address current shortages.

“Even when COVID slows down,” says Woytiuk, “because there have been so many delays in other areas of health care, the need for nurses will still increase after the pandemic is over. I can only imagine it will increase for the next decade or two because of the backlog.”

The Thunder Bay region “is definitely suffering,” says Jones-Bonofiglio. “It’s very difficult to get folks to move to the smaller communities, where there’s not a lot of resources …. We’re starting to see our hospitals using agency nurses.”

Agency nurses are independent, self-employed nurses, says Ike Ejesi, a critical care and advanced practice RN who has worked as an agency nurse in Ontario ICUs from Oshawa to Burlington.

Agency nursing provides Ejesi, who came to nursing later after first working in IT in Canada and Nigeria, with the freedom and flexibility he and his young family need. He can work when he wants to, had time to get a master’s degree and is involved in community activism.

Ejesi says agency nurses are an essential component of health care in Canada, especially during the pandemic, when some ICUs would have closed without their help.

Villanueva-Rafanan and Woytiuk both are interested in “travel nursing” – working for an agency that finds nurses who are willing to work in rural or northern parts of Canada.

The “glamourization” of travel nursing is another reason applications to nursing have gone up, says Villanueva-Rafanan, but people don’t realize how difficult it actually is. “You’re a charge nurse, you have patients, you’re everything. Even though you’re getting paid a lot, it’s still quite a bit of work,” she says. “I want to increase my experience in order to be able to do that. It pays a lot more – almost triple.”

However, Ejesi warns there is a misconception about how much you can earn as an agency nurse when you factor in that there is no paid vacation, no retirement fund and no paid sick leave. He pays about $620 a month for his own long-term disability, life and other insurance coverage.

Woytiuk says he really wants to do “fly nursing” – another name for travel nursing – “but to achieve those goals I have to do prerequisites.” His two jobs – community health and rural acute health – qualify as prerequisites for northern nursing in Saskatchewan and in the Northwest Territories “because you are expected to be self-sufficient, independent and able to understand health care at a very broad level.”

Woytiuk says his nursing program at the University of Saskatchewan provided him with the resilience to deal with the challenges and adversities of modern-day nursing.

That is an emphasis at Lakehead as well. “We’re working really hard at the school of nursing to prepare nurses not only for the technical skills and to have the knowledge of anatomy and physiology, but really to think about their skills in navigating ethical issues in practice and focusing on self-care,” says Jones-Bonofiglio. “We’re encouraging them to think about stress management and healthy lifestyle and all the teaching that we’re always gung-ho to give to patients and families, and now (the nursing students) need to walk-the-talk.”

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Mary-Kay Whittaker


Mary-Kay Whittaker is a fellow in the Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto focusing on health professional education and health workforce planning.

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