Nursing dream turns sour in the Philippines

File photo: Filipino nurses taking oath A nursing career is seen as a ticket out of poverty in the Philippines

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If you go into an American hospital, a Japanese elderly care centre, a British hospice or even the clinics at the centre of the recent violence in Libya and Syria, you are likely to find a nurse from the Philippines working there.

Filipinos' reliability and high level of English, coupled with the fact they are willing to accept jobs almost anywhere in the world, have proved a lifeline for many countries in need of nurses and care-workers.

It is an arrangement that has always seemed to work well for the Philippines too.

Not only is nursing a highly respected profession here, it has also been traditionally viewed as a passport out of poverty for many.

But in recent years, this dream has turned sour.

There are far fewer jobs than there once were, leaving tens of thousands unemployed.

Start Quote

Many rural folks had to sell their carabao - their water buffalo - and even their property just to send their child to nursing school”

End Quote Catherine Castaneda Commission on Higher Education

At the beginning of this year, more than 200,000 registered Philippine nurses could not find work, and an estimated 80,000 are graduating this year to join an already saturated job market.

"It's so disappointing," said Tina Siuagan, who has been looking for a nursing position since she left university three years ago.

"You can't help but question: 'What's wrong with me, why can't I get a job?'"

'Not hiring'

When she started her degree, Tina could not have foreseen the global events that would mean her qualification would change from being a pathway to a good career into one that would probably not lead to a job at all.

But at the end of her four-year course, it was already painfully evident.

"When these nurses graduated, it was exactly the time the global economy went into recession," said Alvin Dakis, president of the Alliance of Young Nurse Leaders.

Nursing graduate Tina Siuagan Tina Siuagan sings at a bar because she cannot get a position as a nurse

"Western countries were not hiring, so they're all now stuck in the Philippines."

To make matters worse, many countries have recently been trying to train more of their own nurses and therefore discouraging the hiring of foreign staff.

As a consequence, visa requirements - especially in the US and Europe - have gotten much tougher, restricting Filipinos to job opportunities in their own country.

And with so many applicants for every job, Philippine hospitals are only recruiting those with many years of specialist experience, leaving most graduates with nothing.

Lucrative jobs

A decade ago, it all seemed so simple.

Would-be nurses, most but not all of whom were female, studied and worked for a few years in the Philippines before taking up far more lucrative jobs abroad.

Such jobs not only meant the nurse was well provided for, it often meant that the money he or she sent home to the Philippines would provide for the rest of the family too.

"For almost 10 years, nursing was flavour of the year. Everyone went into nursing," said Catherine Castaneda from the Commission on Higher Education.

"All the parents wanted their children to go into nursing. Many rural folks had to sell their carabao - their water buffalo - and even their property just to send their child to nursing school."

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It's very difficult - at my age I should be the one helping my family, not them helping me”

End Quote Angeline Veraga Nursing volunteer

Nursing schools opened up all over the country, and especially in the capital, Manila, to cash in on this demand.

And even now, many of these schools are still operating, churning out yet more graduates every year.

'No regrets'

Given the changing economic climate for nursing graduates, both the government and education providers are actively trying to stem this tide of unemployed nurses.

According to Ms Castaneda, the Commission on Higher Education has drafted strict rules for all nursing schools.

"Out of all the fields of study in the Philippines, the most monitored one is nursing," says Ms Castaneda.

The exams have got harder - only about half the students pass - and any school with below average results for more than five consecutive years is asked to close.

Government ministers repeatedly tell students who are thinking about studying nursing, even those partway through a nursing degree, to look at allied courses like medical technology and pharmacy instead.

And many nursing graduates are encouraged to find jobs in the call centres which are springing up around the Philippines. Some of these are taking advantage of their medical knowledge by offering back-office services for hospitals and clinics.

Nursing volunteer Angeline Veraga with her cancer patients Angeline Veraga has been working as an unpaid nursing volunteer for the past three years

But despite the statistics and the newspaper headlines, there are still many young Filipinos who remain determined to go into nursing whatever the cost.

For the past three years, Angeline Veraga has been working as an unpaid volunteer in the cancer unit at Manila's East Avenue Medical Center.

She is a nursing graduate, and she has also done several short courses in certain specialist areas, but she has still not found any work at home or abroad.

For someone who studied nursing with the aim of being her family's main breadwinner, it is a bitter pill to swallow.

"My parents feel like I'm still going to school because they give me some money every day," she said.

"It's very difficult. At my age I should be the one helping my family, not them helping me."

But Angeline still has her heart set on a career on nursing.

"I don't regret being a nurse. Every time I go home I feel so blessed at being able to help someone, even though I don't get anything in return."

Despite all the difficulties, with that level of dedication, perhaps the Philippines will still be known for its nurses in years to come.

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