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The lure of nursing in Alberta

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Alberta in Canada has a booming economy and a lack of nurses. Paul Dinsdale looks at the appeal of moving there

Many nurses dream of moving abroad and enjoying a better lifestyle and better career prospects but the reality is, for a large number of nurses, it remains just that – a dream. When the work on the ward, or in the clinic or practice seems too stressful or monotonous, the idea of working in another healthcare system can be very alluring.

Some countries are now restricting the number of nurses they allow to work within their borders but one region that has an urgent need for skilled nurses and other healthcare professionals is Alberta in Canada. Although not as well known as other provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta is keen to attract nurses to work there, as it has a booming economy and
a rapidly growing population.

Alberta is Canada’s second most western province, with its borders touching the spectacular Canadian Rocky Mountains
to the west, the vast prairies to the east, the US to the south and the Canadian Arctic to the north.

Its population of 3.4 million people is the youngest of all 10 Canadian provinces, with an average age of 35.5 years. One
in every seven Albertans was born outside Canada, giving it a diverse and energetic workforce. It has a very well educated
local population, with more than half of the 1.9 million workforce holding a degree, diploma or professional certificate.

Alberta saw the highest economic growth of any province in 2006, with a record low unemployment rate of 3.4% and an increase of 86,000 in employment growth. With a growing population, the province needs a larger workforce in order to deliver healthcare to its citizens.

The provincial government’s budget for spending on health and well-being will account for 36% of its total spend in 2008–2009, at 13.2 billion Canadian dollars.

One nurse who moved to Alberta seven years ago is Jill Woodward, now a patient care manager in the paediatric intensive care unit at Alberta Children’s Hospital (ACH) in Calgary, the second largest city in Alberta. In the UK, she worked at the Manchester Children’s Hospital.

‘When we first looked into moving to Canada, we had no fixed plan of where we wanted to relocate to,’ she says. ‘All I knew was, as a paediatric nurse, I wanted to live in a city that had a children’s hospital so that I would stand a better chance of getting a position I would like.

‘Many cities in Canada have children’s hospitals but when we looked into it, Calgary seemed to offer everything we were looking for – an excellent children’s hospital, an airport (my husband is an aircraft technician), close to beautiful mountains and countryside, a small city yet with good amenities, affordable lifestyle and low taxes.’

Jill was offered a position at the hospital within a week of arriving and started work within a month. They were lucky enough
to have the help of local expats who gave them great tips on essentials like finding temporary accommodation, so they had
a good idea of what to expect, she says.

‘Settling into life in Calgary was easy. At first it feels like you’re permanently on holiday. The lifestyle is very easy-going
with lots of opportunities for leisure activities all year round. We were initially concerned about the winter weather but Calgary actually has pretty good winters. There are lots of days with cold temperatures but beautiful clear blue
skies. Summers have moderate temperatures and lots of sunshine.’

Jill says there are some significant differences between working in the UK and in Alberta. First, the pay structure is different, in that nurses are not salaried but paid an hourly rate. Staff are also paid every two weeks rather than monthly, which is the norm for most jobs in Alberta. There is only one level of staff nurse but there are nine incremental steps in the pay scale.

The shift pattern and off-duty times are also different. In the UK Jill was used to internal rotation, working days, evenings and nights, and having a dynamic off-duty rota that changed from month to month. In Alberta she is only required to work either days or evenings, or days and nights. Each area works on a master rotation, usually eight or 12 weeks, and each nurse is allocated a ‘line’ in the master rotation.

‘The line sets the shift pattern for the eight or twelve weeks and the pattern keeps repeating, meaning that you can plan quite far ahead,’ says Jill.

‘While there are full-time lines available, most staff work smaller full-time equivalents with 0.8 and 0.7 being the most popular,so you can maintain a better work-life balance,’ she adds.

Until she received her full RN licence in Alberta, Jill was paid as a graduate nurse for around two months. Currently, graduate nurses start at around £27,000 per annum, while registered nurses (staff nurses) earn around £30,000–£39,000 a year.

Jill says: ‘Alberta also allows portability of previous experience, so a nurse coming to work here may start higher up the scale based on previous hours of experience. As the cost of living is lower than the UK and the prospects for furthering my career here are very positive, I would say that financial prospects are favourable compared with the UK.’

Property prices are also very attractive.

Jill and her husband bought a detached three-bedroom house in 2001 for £80,000. Three years later they moved to a larger house with four bedrooms, a double garage and a further two bedrooms in the finished basement for £134,000.

Jill believes career prospects in Alberta are very good. Her own case proves the point. Having left the UK as an F-grade sister, she took a staff nurse position when she first arrived. After 18 months, she became a charge nurse for two years, and then a patient flow coordinator for the unit. She later became an assistant manager for one of the inpatient units and, most recently, she has been appointed patient care manager.

Another advantage of the Alberta Children’s Hospital is that the nurse-to-patient ratio is better than the one Jill knew in the UK. When she arrived the ratio was one nurse to four patients and since then it has been reduced to 1:3, so nurses have more time to spend with patients and their families.

All the units in Jill’s hospital have at least one clinical nurse educator whose role is to provide ongoing formal and informal education to the nursing staff, and to develop policies and procedures for nursing.

In terms of the cost of living, Jill says a weekly shopping bill for a family of four costs around £90–£100. Fruit and vegetables can be expensive as most are imported from other parts of Canada or the US but meat is very reasonable as Alberta is a meat-producing province. During the summer, there are many farmers’ markets that sell local produce more cheaply.

Overall, Jill says she and her husband are both very happy in Alberta. ‘It’s a great place to live and I feel that my career has progressed more quickly than it would have done in the UK.’

‘In terms of salary, it’s absolutely fabulous’

Jane Parker, a mental health nurse, moved to Alberta last December. She visited relatives there in 2004, decided she liked it and moved there with her husband. She now works in
a mental health unit for elderly people in Ponoka, near Edmonton.

‘Even though there’s a shortage of nurses here, there is good camaraderie. It’s a nice environment to work in and morale is generally good and people don’t get stressed,’ she says.

‘In terms of salary, it’s absolutely fabulous. In the UK I was an E grade and the highest salary level was £25,000 a year; now I’m on 80,000 Canadian dollars, which is around £42,000.’

Jane and her husband are having a house built in Ponoka and she says that even though property prices have risen, it is more affordable than the UK.

‘In the UK, we were struggling on my salary, as my husband was a full-time student but here we’re comfortable. We will have a much bigger house than we could have afforded in the
UK. The new house has five bedrooms, a double garage and a table tennis room.

‘We’re both into the outdoor lifestyle and it’s great to be able to go for walks. Even in winter, although it’s cold, the scenery is spectacular.

‘One key incentive was that I wanted to experience different things. It was a simple choice – stay in the NHS for the next 40 years or do something different.’

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