Thursday, June 23, 2011

Nursing "shortage" reflects political decisions

The Edmonton Journal has posted an interesting story about the job prospects of nursing graduates. Looking past the basic narrative, what the story reveals is labour shortages or surpluses in the public sector are political creations, largely unrelated to actual supply and demand.

The article details the recent history of the nursing labour force in Alberta. There was a shortage in 2008, with the province spending big recruiting from India, the Philippines and United Kingdom and closing operating rooms.

Then, in 2009, the province had too many nurses and froze hiring and spent $20 million buying out older (more expensive) nurses.

And now we're back to a shortage and the the province agreed to a three-year contract with the union wherein promised to hire 70 per cent of all nursing graduates into regular positions.

So what does this tell us? A reasonable person might first question the competence of senior health managers who don't seem to know if there is a shortage or surplus and have spent money "fixing" both "problems" in the course of three short years.

A more insightful analysis is that worker "shortages" and "surpluses" in Alberta's public sector don't mean there is an actual shortage or surplus of workers. Rather, a "surplus" of nurses means the province want to reduce spending and is going to cut nursing positions. A "shortage" means the province is flush and/or is getting heat for poor health care and wants to buy its way out of its problems.

We saw something similar in education earlier this year, when the premier was announcing hundreds of millions of dollars in new school construction (meaning huge contracts for the construction industry, a strong supporter of the conservative government) at the same time the Minister of Education was pleading poverty and forcing school boards to layoff teachers (cough, cough).

Such duplicity significantly damages the credibility of the government. Can we trust politicians when they announce there are too many or too few workers? Indeed, can we trust anything a government politician says about the labour market? Given this environment, it is hardly surprising public sector unions have refused to cooperate with government austerity measures.

-- Bob Barnetson

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