Alberta is stepping up efforts to hire more nurses, recruiting every graduate of the province's universities with hopes of persuading more of them to work full-time.
Alberta Health Services chair Stephen Lockwood told a board meeting Thursday that the province hopes to hire all 750 registered nurses who will graduate in Alberta next month, while also recruiting outside its borders. Alberta not only needs more nurses, he said, it needs more who will work full-time – only 28 per cent of AHS nurses are full-time now.
"In short, we need everyone," Mr. Lockwood said. "There will be a nursing job for absolutely every qualified nurse who wants to work with Alberta Health Services, and going forward we want more of them working full-time."
The recruitment is focused on registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses, but not licensed practical nurses, who go through less school and are paid less. And the new goals – more registered nurses, and more full-time – may not mesh. "Part of the success factor [in recruiting nurses to Alberta] has to do with the ability of the individual nurses to be fairly flexible about their employment conditions," AHS CEO Chris Eagle acknowledged.
Nurses' relationship with the province has been a roller-coaster ride. ("What's a nursing shortage one month is a surplus the next," NDP Leader Brian Mason said.) Two decades ago, then premier Ralph Klein rolled back nurses' wages and choked health budgets. Regional health boards then slowly resumed recruiting. They were consolidated into AHS in 2008 and recruitment collapsed, the United Nurses of Alberta said. Now it's picking up again.
UNA president Heather Smith said the government could start by posting more full-time jobs – many are part-time. But the government will face a fight if it tries to push part-timers into full-time roles – Canadian Institute for Health Information data show Alberta has the lowest percentage of full-time nurses among all provinces. Many nurses want flexible time, Ms. Smith said, and shouldn't be forced to take full-time jobs. "We are encouraging them to do it through attrition," she said, saying better jobs will lure nurses. "Look at what you can do to make full-time more attractive."
University of Alberta dean of nursing Anita Molzahn said the province resumed aggressively recruiting her graduates about 18 months ago, but many still are not offered full-time jobs, only part-time or casual. "So I think AHS is signalling a change in direction," Dr. Molzahn said. "I think that's good for new graduates." Many want to stay in Alberta and are seeking full-time work, she said. The hiring binge will also lead to more applications to nursing programs, she said.
In 2010, Alberta had 771 nurses per 100,000 residents, roughly the national average, according to a CIHI study. As Alberta grows, as the population ages and as nurses retire – 2,200 in Alberta over the next five years – more nurses are needed. "I don't know any health minsiter in Canada that isn't struggling with the issue of how to hire and retain more nurses," said Fred Horne, Alberta's Health minister. "There's two issues – recruitment in terms of numbers, but then there's also making best use of the nurses we have in place. That'll continue to be a priority in Alberta."
The board meeting heard AHS staff take an average of 11.1 sick days a year – "significantly higher" than the private sector. The union dismissed that, saying the rates should be compared with other nurses and are well within the allowable amount of time off.