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The Saskatoon Health Region discovered that the Philippines educates a surplus of nurses in a comparable educational system.CHERYL RAVELO

In 2008, a recruitment mission from the Saskatoon Health Region flew to the Philippines and offered contracts to 105 nurses. Out of the 95 who came, 93 passed the Canadian Registered Nursing Exam and are on the job at Royal University Hospital, Saskatoon City Hospital and St. Paul's Hospital, as well as long-term care institutions and other health facilities throughout Saskatchewan. Only one went home. The nurses came on one-year work permits, but the team's goal from the start was that the nurses would stay and become Canadian citizens.

"They're like family now," says Rhoda Yakubowski, a recruitment consultant with SHR, who worked on the home front settling the nurses in and educating colleagues who would be working with them. "It's been fabulous. If you can't find skilled workers, it's definitely worthwhile."

SHR, which retains most graduates from its nursing programs, chose to go international in its hunt because more nurses were needed to stabilize an aging work force. After some research, they found the Philippines to be a great market because the country educates a surplus of nurses in a comparable educational system. The recruitment team believed that, with a little help, the nurses would be successful in Canada.

The Saskatchewan team which travelled to the Philippines numbered nearly 40 people, including administrators and nurse managers from SHR as well as representatives from the province's nursing educational institutions, the Registered Nurses' Association, Union of Nurses, Saskatchewan Immigration and the other health regions in the province. It was headed by Bonnie Blakley, SHR's vice-president of people strategy.

Before going, the group put together guidelines on recruiting ethically, such as not hiring more than 10 nurses from any one site so they wouldn't harm existing health systems. They also worked with three overseas recruitment agencies, sifting through résumés and putting together a lineup they could see when they went over. Language was not a barrier. All the candidates spoke English and had to pass English language tests at a required level to be able to come to Canada.

Once there, the team worked with the Philippine government, explaining how they were going to do business in its communities. The government was so impressed by their respectful approach that it has adapted the team's guidelines for other foreign employers to use when recruiting there.

On the Canadian side, the SHR staff educated its workers about the culture of the nurses who were coming.

"We made sure that everyone who was going to be impacted by a nurse coming into their unit knew why we went, who we were bringing over, the education the nurses had and what was expected of them as potential mentors for these nurses," Ms. Yakubowski says.

"We did that not only in Saskatoon but went out to all the rural communities who would be receiving nurses as well. We also made sure not to bring over all 95 nurses at once, so we wouldn't overwhelm our nurse educators or our units."

The SHR home team ensured the nurses had the bare necessities when they arrived, securing housing, furniture and clothing plus a bit of food to start them off. "SHR employees really stepped up when we put out a call for gently used items," Ms. Yakubowski says. "We collected enough to fill five moving vans full of furniture."

The biggest challenge was Saskatoon's 1 per cent housing vacancy rate at that time, but when the story broke about the nurses coming, the community came through with houses, apartments and people willing to take nurses into their homes. The province helped cover costs with a Ministry of Health relocation grant of $5,000 for each nurse.

When the first group of 17 arrived in August of 2008, SHR helped ease their entry into Canada. Most had left little ones and husbands behind, knowing it could be a year before they'd see them again, but believing they were providing for the family's future by coming to Canada.

"We made sure they had social insurance numbers, bank accounts and cellphones," Ms. Yakubowski says. "We took them grocery shopping because the food here was very foreign at first, made sure they had the right clothing, got them bus passes and rode the buses with them so they'd know the routes to get to their units. Nursing Affairs provided them with a week's training before they had orientation on their own units."

Because candidates are not allowed to write Canadian nursing exams outside of Canada, SHR gave the nurses two days of review and extra support, such as tutors, if they failed the first time. The team still helps them with immigration paperwork so they can become permanent residents.

Honey Lansangan, who works in the intensive-care unit at Saskatoon's Royal University Hospital, says she felt very welcomed by the other nurses when she arrived and loves Saskatoon despite the cold. While she misses the food back home in the Philippines, she and her husband recently learned to ski.

"They came at a time when there was a huge need," Ms. Yakubowski says. "I think the whole region is friends with them now on Facebook."