Living in a packed Kiwi flat in London and fitting nursing work between backpacking trips with mates was a rite of passage for many New Zealand nurses.
Nici Gardner was one of them in the late 1980s, along with about 10 of her Christchurch Hospital nursing school classmates. Most had done a year or two staff nursing post-registration and she conservatively estimates that about a third of her graduating class of 80 ended up in the UK at some stage.
Roll on 30 years and 25-year-old Christine Stanley thinks she is one of the very few of her University of Auckland classmates to have left New Zealand three years after graduating.
Student loan debt and more mature cohorts of graduates are probably influencing the timing and numbers doing the great Kiwi nursing OE. At the same time a much more time-consuming and expensive registration process has virtually killed the UK as a base for a nursing working holiday. (It now costs £1,415 for non-EU nurses to register in the UK – including clinical competence tests.)
But Kiwis still have itchy feet and last year 1,800 applied to the Nursing Council of New Zealand for proof of registration so they could nurse overseas – the vast majority (1,555) applying to nurse in Australia.
How many of last year’s 1,555 applicants were planning to permanently cross the Tasman and how many were popping across for some Oz-based OE – including short-term, lucrative, rural and remote contracts – is unknown.
What is known from Nursing Council annual practising certificate (APC) stats is that in 2016 there were 1,347 overseas-based nurses with valid New Zealand APCs, which indicates that many were at least keeping the option open of returning to nurse in New Zealand at some stage (some, of course, will also be doing humanitarian aid or volunteer work overseas).
Anecdotal evidence is that young nurses are still heading to the UK, but opting to work, like Stanley, as live-in carers. Nursing Council statistics for nurses seeking verification indicate that while the majority are seeking to register in Australia (1,555), some are aiming to nurse in the UK/Ireland (99), others in North America (100 seeking verification in USA or Canada where, like the UK, overseas nurses must first pass an exam or competency test process) or the Middle East (31).
The Trans-Tasman Mutual Recognition scheme for nursing registration means crossing the ditch to work as a nurse is by far the simplest option. (See Crossing the Tasman profile.)
The availability of well-paid, three-month contracts to work in the Outback or other remote locations is also a drawcard.
One Australian agency’s website, Healthcare Australia, features profiles of two Kiwi nurses taking up short-term rural and remote contracts that highlight another trend – the mid-life nursing OE.
One profile is of an Australian-based young Kiwi doing the traditional OE of nursing for 6–8 months and then travelling – last year it was to SouthEast Asia and the year before to Paris.
The other profile is of a Queenstown-based nurse with grown-up children (one based in Australia) who has been crossing the Tasman regularly for around a decade, initially taking short-term contracts to explore Australia but now returning to her favourite remote outposts.
Contracts with hospitals in Saudi Arabia or the less restrictive neighbouring United Arab Emirates states like Dubai or Abu Dhabi is another option chosen by some Kiwis for their working holidays. While choosing to nurse in restrictive Saudi is not for everyone, the opportunity to work for a tax-free salary, with free rent and frequent leave does appeal to some.
Nurses seeking jobs in countries with more complex registration requirements most commonly use agencies to help them. The NZNO recommends nurses ask around for word of mouth references or personal experiences as the best way to check out an agency. It also advises nurses to have all overseas contracts checked out by a lawyer and to be suspicious of any agency that doesn’t allow them to do so.
The other advice, of course, is to enjoy – being a registered nurse has long been seen as a ticket to travel and the Kiwi nurses who return from their OEs bring back with them rich experiences of different cultures and health systems.
The nub, as always, is how many choose to return.