When the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic made its full force felt in the USA, one travel nurse filled her suitcase with scrubs, a reusable face shield, a plate and silverware – and went off to fight the virus across hospitals stretched wafer-thin with staffing shortages. She was among a growing number of masked crusaders who travelled to areas where cases were spiking.
Hailed as heroes, in what resembled medical war zones, the demand for travel nurses spread as swiftly as the disease. This also meant unprecedented incentives for these frontline champions, including record-high rates of pay.
But even before a worldwide pandemic shook the very foundations of life as we know it, there was a growing need for travel nurse jobs, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) reporting a global shortage of healthcare workers, and in particular, nurses.
Even if you can’t travel now for work, the opportunity to travel in the future is a great option to keep in mind as you study nursing.
So, what exactly is travel nursing, and what can you expect from a travel nurse job description?
Here’s what you need to know about life on the road as a travel nurse.
What is a travelling nurse?
Travel nursing is typically made up of temporary nursing positions, mostly in hospitals. These assignments can range anywhere from two to 26 weeks, with most hovering around the four to six-week mark. While some travel nurses cover annual leave positions, others fill in short-term employment gaps, ensuring patient care is not impacted.
Mary Colfer is an ICU and EDU nurse. She left her native Ireland to explore new places in Australia and found herself working on Queensland’s Mornington Island. She says, a lot of places rely on travel nursing, “to fill their full-time equivalent lines, especially in smaller places – regional towns, and remote areas.”
According to Colfer, outside of the big cities’ hospitals can struggle to attract long-term nursing staff due to their sheer remoteness. Her 18-week stint with the Nurse at Call agency, for instance, lead her to a far-flung island with a population of just over one thousand - and only “one shop.”
“The highlight of your week is to go shopping. There’s no cafe. There's no bar. There's no restaurant. If you want to go off the Island, you have to get a flight. It's actually really, really remote,” she laughs.
Colfer believes travel nursing provides the perfect antidote to potential nursing shortages. Despite the isolation in some areas, she says the allure of international nursing jobs is about adventure and “experiencing all these new places.”
“You find hidden gems. Australia has some really amazing places that unless you work in them, you've never heard of them.”
“It gives you an opportunity to meet the local people too. There's some great characters out there and you see a very diverse Australia – so that gives you great insight,” she adds.
What are travelling nurses’ jobs like?
Prior to landing in Australia, Mary Colfer spent decades across Irish hospitals. The 50-something-year-old nurse also held permanent positions in Saudi Arabia as well as doing spells on Mercy Ships around West Africa. In 2019, she was in Senegal for 10 weeks, with a job on one of those hospital ships.
Yet despite her rich history in nursing, which goes back to the early 90s, she says nothing quite compares to the experience of working as a travel nurse. She states that the life of travel nurses can be full of surprises, and opportunities to learn and grow – both personally and professionally.
“When I went to Alice Springs, I can honestly say my mouth was opened. It's just a completely different culture. And some of the illnesses you see, I’d never seen in my life.”
Hailing from Wexford in Ireland, Colfer describes her time working with the Indigenous community of Alice Springs as initially being “a bit of a culture shock” and requiring the “biggest adjustment.”
“I didn't realise that diseases like rheumatic heart disease actually existed. If not treated properly, kids can develop problems with their valves later on in life, necessitating surgery. It's all about prevention, picking up infections, and treating the infections.”
“The experience was purely educational. I did courses in the area I was working in. It gave me an insight into developing health care, and things that I had never been exposed to before. It just opens your mind hugely,” she declares.
The benefits of being a travelling nurse
For Colfer, the challenging experience of working with an Indigenous community for the first time helped her to learn to be a nurse in a global context. She says it’s just one of the many benefits of working in travel nursing.
Another advantage is flexing your critical thinking.
“It does give you a lot of confidence because you hit the ground running. You're making a lot of decisions that if you sat in a bigger centre, you wouldn't be making, because obviously there's people ahead of you that are permanent staff.”
“It gives you a lot of responsibility and it shows that you're quite capable of working with very limited resources. You have to learn to think more independently and be prepared for the unexpected,” she adds.
It’s a sentiment 25-year-old nurse Jessika Costa can relate to. Before finding her way to Melbourne from Canada through the agency Healthcare Australia, she’d been specialising in cardiovascular nursing. But working across various hospitals with different types of nurses, she says her nursing knowledge has grown “10 times greater” in the last year.
“I've been able to learn from so many different nurses in so many different hospitals. I've had the opportunity to branch out from cardiovascular, and work in oncology or neuro women's health – all different kinds of specialties – which I personally feel makes me a more valued employee.”
Aside from building her skills, Costa also loves the personal freedom and flexible work arrangements that come with travel nursing. This is her fourth year of nursing, and while she wanted to build her career and earn a crust, she was also keen to travel. She explains that tourism is at the heart of travel nursing.
“If you want to take a week off, you're more than free to do that, which is great in the sense of wanting to be here on an adventure. I went to Vietnam for three weeks. I didn't have to request any time off. I just booked myself as unavailable. And I was able to go home for Christmas.”
“The opportunities that you can get are quite endless, in the sense of just exploring the world,” she adds.
Growing demand for travelling nurses
According to the latest research, demand keeps rising for travel nurses due to a growing ageing population worldwide. The Travel Nurse Industry Job Trends report shows that there’s been a 44 per cent year-over-year growth in travel nursing jobs from 2018 to 2019. And 2020 has been the year where there’s unprecedented demand for travel nurses in America, as well as other countries hit hard by Covid-19.
This trend is unsurprising to Colfer who says, in some parts of Australia, the need is so obvious that you can literally grab a van and go town hopping as a nurse across the country.
“There’s couples that might be in their fifties, and their kids are growing up, and they're travelling around Australia picking up work. So, they work for three months as a nurse, and see the locality, and then move on.”
Through her agency, Costa says she’s seen plenty of opportunities to explore different parts of Australia – indicating there’s good job prospects nationwide. While she still has her sights set on travelling across South-East Asia, in the immediate future she says she’d like to “go out West and swim with the whale sharks.”
Meantime, the world can be your oyster for travelling nurses with 30 countries in need of travel nurses – from Chile to Bangladesh.
Travel nurse salary and employment outlook
One big incentive for travel nurses is the salary. The ten highest paying countries for nurses with the most lucrative deals include Italy, the Virgin Islands and Dubai. In a country like Iceland, you can expect to be paid, US $87,635. And right now the pay for travel nurses in the US has almost doubled.
Costa says the salary was definitely part of the appeal of the job. She says as an international travel nurse “you're getting paid at a casual rate, which is quite a bit higher than if you were full time.”
In her experience, the job market has been quite strong, “with the patient population constantly growing.” So, there’s plenty of opportunity to earn well.
But the big money is in remote Australia according to Colfer.
“If you're willing to go into really remote communities with just two nurse posts, that's where you can make money, because you're on call, and you work a lot of hours,” she explains.
How best to upskill for travel nursing
Before packing your suitcase, Costa advises that it’s important to “feel comfortable and confident in your nursing capabilities.”
Colfer concurs. She states that “you need to be able to have good clinical skills and make judgements.”
VU Online’s Master of Nursing, offers industry-focused courses, with two specialisations in Chronic Disease and Ageing, or Leadership. Delivered via an online postgraduate block model, which has you focus on one unit at a time instead of four, this course prepares nurses for clinical leadership, research, and advanced practice roles.
The two-year part-time qualification will give you the skills that are in demand for senior nurse roles, so that you can hop aboard the nurse express, sooner rather than later.
To learn more about VU Online’s Master of Nursing contact our Student Enrolment team on 1300 043 531.