By Sabrina Daniele
There has been a significant jump in applications to Ontario nursing programs during the pandemic, statistics show.
It comes as the workforce is in desperate need of a boost — nursing associations are warning that Ontario’s aging population is requiring increasing care and many nurses who’ve worked through the pandemic are burnt out and planning to leave the profession, and you can read more about that here.
Applications to university nursing programs have increased in the range of 17 to 20 per cent over the last year, according to Heather Lane, the executive director of the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre (OUAC).
“I'd like to hope that it's because we're living through the pandemic, our high school students are thinking, you know, ‘What can I do that’s meaningful … and how can I help contribute to making things better?’” Lane said. “I like to think that that's a big driver.”
Linda Franklin, President and CEO at Ontario Colleges, said there are more qualified applicants for the programs than there are seats available in both the practical nursing program and bachelor of science in nursing (BScN) program.
“This shows there is tremendous interest in nursing programs and the profession,” she said.
While nursing programs are oversubscribed right now, the province may be able to capitalize on the increased interest in nursing soon. Last year, the Ontario government gave colleges the option to deliver standalone nursing degrees without a university partner. According to Franklin, this will help Ontario “produce more qualified nurses to fill key shortages in many communities.”
Ontario universities in the province have seen an increase in applications for health professions across the board, according to the Council of Ontario Universities (COU).
“Ontario universities have noted a significant increase in enrolment applications for health professions this fall, including registered nurses and nurse practitioners,” said CEO Steve Orsini. “This increased commitment is a testament to the dedication of students who are willing to support the province as it continues to fight the pandemic.”
Vicki McKenna, RN and provincial president of the Ontario Nurses Association (ONA), welcomed the news.
“There seems to be a great deal [of interest] in nursing, which is a really good thing – considering all that is going on,” McKenna said, adding that the increased interest may be coming from post-secondary students, workers looking for a career change, and anyone who has seen what is going on and really wants to help.
“Over the last 15 months now, you know, lead stories have been all about health care and COVID-19. So I think it’s brought awareness to people that otherwise may not have considered it,” McKenna said.
But nurses are finding their work very difficult right now, McKenna said. Nurses were struggling before COVID-19 and with the intensity and pressure they are very tired — both mentally and physically.
“What I’m hearing in the field, nurses are saying, you know, this is the toughest time they’ve ever experienced in their careers. And that they might have been thinking about working longer. But they’re thinking, they’re thinking were gonna get through this, but I don’t know how much longer,” she said.
A recent survey by the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) highlighted the need for new nurses.
The survey, which included responses from both registered nurses and nurse practitioners, found many are planning to work less or leave their field altogether.
A majority, 52.5 per cent, said they plan on working the same number of hours a week post-pandemic, while 7.5 per cent said they would work more hours, and 37.4 per cent said they would work less.
The survey found 51.6 per cent said they would continue working for more than 10 years, while 21.8 per cent said they are planning to work between five and 10 more years. Once the pandemic is over, 3 per cent plan to retire.
“I was worried [about the current workforce] to be honest. People might think, ‘Oh gee, I don’t know if I want to get into that or not,’” McKenna said. “But what I understand is that there is a large number of applicants for the seats.”
However, McKenna said if something isn’t done to better retain the nurses we have, the nursing shortage will become even more serious.
The Ontario Nurses Association has been fighting the Ford government in court over its legislation capping salary increases in the broader public sector a 1 per cent. The association has launched a charter challenge, arguing the bill interferes with its members' collective bargaining rights and amounts to gender and racial discrimination against the largely female and racialized workforce.