Fears COVID interruptions could alienate students and grads from the workforce

Students in NSW are facing difficulties with placements ahead of completing their degrees, according to Professional Officer Jo Purdue. Image: Supplied

With nursing and midwifery students facing endless disruptions with their placements due to the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jo Purdue, Professional Officer at the NSWNMA, fears they will be alienated from the workforce at a time when nurses and midwives have never been more critical.

Ms Purdue, who focuses heavily on new graduates entering the workforce, has run new graduate programs for eight years.

“New graduates and early career nurses are my passion,” she says.

However, Ms Purdue is concerned about the disruption of clinical placements many students have had to endure due to the pandemic. With the lack of student preparation could result in poor retention rates she says.

“Students are part of our workforce… It [should be] no different for a student coming in for a placement than it should be a nurse coming in to do a shift – these are going to be nurses,” Ms Purdue explains.

Ms Purdue says that each successive annual cohort of graduates has experienced disruptions with their placements due to COVID-19.

“We’ve got this roll-on effect. Each year that we keep going [with the pandemic], it’s getting worse.

“Our graduates for 2021 weren’t severely affected. Our graduates for 2022 were quite significantly affected. What is it going to be for 2023? Are we going to even have a workforce ready to graduate because of placements?”

While the initial disruptions to placements weren’t unexpected at the pandemic’s onset in 2020, the way that Ms Purdue describes the evolving situation of placements in NSW mirrors the way that the virus has evolved and mutated itself.

She says in early 2020, there was an environment of apprehension within the student cohort about the prospect of placements in environments with elevated risk, like in ICU. Further, some universities took a hardline, with some saying those who didn’t accept their initial placement would be forced to the back of the queue to complete their required hours at a later date.

Additionally, there was frustration with many other placements being cancelled.

“It was quite messy at the beginning because nobody really knew what was happening,” Ms Purdue says.

By the end of 2020, some steps had been taken to rectify the situation, including the NSWNMA establishing assistance for students undertaking placement. However, previous delays meant a significant backlog of students still needing to compete placement.

While most of these students were able to complete placements by the early part of 2021 without significant delay, by mid-2021, surveys within the NSWNMA’s student membership revealed not only delays were occurring but that students often received notice of cancelled placements less than 24 hours before commencement.

Meanwhile, communication for placements between students, universities and NSW’s Local Health Districts has often been confused. Many students were also commencing placements without prior experience in simulations and workshops since on-site university learning was significantly reduced due to COVID.

The end result, ahead of the pandemic’s third year? A raft of second-year students without any placement experience, and a graduate cohort who will be playing catch up for most of 2021, Ms Purdue says.

Ms Purdue says it was also a situation rendered more difficult when Sydney Hospital cancelled three months’ worth of placements in the lead up to Christmas.

“This year, we will approximately have about two-and-a-half thousand graduates start in the public sector … They’re going to have to probably stagger that across the year [2022] because we’ve got a lot that will not have finished their hours of completion.”

Ms Purdue also says that as new graduates enter the workforce, they will have to face a new set of challenges with the dilution of support programs as a result of COVID.

Ms Purdue says the need for early-career support is a critical issue as already up to 20% of new nurses and midwives are leaving the workforce within four years of entering it.

Additionally, Ms Purdue says research has revealed that institutional support during a nurse’s first 12 months on the job usually increases their chances of professional growth and career longevity.

Compounding the issue, Ms Purdue says that the current work conditions in NSW, including a lack of adequate staffing ratios, combined with the demands of the pandemic, has created a situation where new staff are simply not getting access to the learning opportunities they need to operate to their full scope of practice.

“We’ve got graduates working in hotel quarantine, we’ve got graduates working in vaccination hubs, we’ve got graduates doing screening,” she says.

“These are roles that are very pandemic based, but are very much not giving them [the graduates] those learning opportunities. What my question is… what happens once they finish that graduate year, or do those positions become obsolete?

“What experience have they gained, and how do we transition them into other roles?”

Ms Purdue reasons that these issues are significant and believes that notifications against and performance reviews for early career nurses are already occurring.

With support networks diminished, short staffing rampant, and the ongoing furlough of experienced staff with COVID, Ms Purdue fears that a critical incident is a heightened risk and that the stresses on an already stressed workforce will continue to tighten.

“More than ever, we need this workforce, but we’re actually setting ourselves up for failure because we’re not supporting that student transitional process,” she says.

Nevertheless, despite the issues, Ms Purdue urged new graduates to embrace the “opportunity” of working within a pandemic environment.

“[Be] more proactive in your critical thinking; develop those skills in being observant, watching and supporting your colleagues as best as you can as well,” she says.

“I think they’re [the students] going to be better critical thinkers and problem solvers, this cohort that have gone through this because they’re going to have to.”

NSW students with queries or concerns about their graduate programs are encouraged to join NSWNMA. They can contact Member Development Officers, engage in NSWNMA graduate learning programs and the NSWNMA’s student portal. More information on those and other services can be found here.

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