Northern Lights College and the University of Northern BC are adding a total of 40 new seats for nursing training.

The province announced 602 new nursing seats to public post-secondary institutions on Sunday in a move the B.C. Nurses’ Union calls a “promising step” toward addressing a staffing crisis in health care.

NLC will expand by 16 seats for licensed practical nurses for the September intake either this year or next. UNBC will add 24 registered nursing seats for the September 2023 intake.

The provincial announcement will result in seats for 362 registered nurses, 40 registered psychiatric nurses, 20 nurse practitioners and 180 licensed practical nurses. The seats will add on to around  2,000 existing ones in nursing programs across the province.

Health Minister Adrian Dix says the investment is about building B.C.’s future health-care workforce, while Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon says it will help close a skills gap.

Aman Grewal, president of the B.C. Nurses Union, says staffing levels were already critical before the COVID-19 pandemic and now nurses are tired, burnt out and need more support.

In a survey last month, 76 per cent of union members said their workloads have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The survey found 51 per cent of those working in emergency departments and intensive care units said the pandemic has made them more likely to leave the profession in the next two years.

“This investment is a promising step toward addressing the staffing crisis that is currently crippling our health-care system,” Grewal said.

Since 2017-2018, Dix said the number of licensed practical nurses in B.C. has risen 12 per cent and registered nurses are up six per cent.

But while the overall number of nurses has increased in recent years, so has demand. Retirements, combined with an aging population that will need more care, are creating new pressures on the system alongside the pandemic, he said.

“The number of nurse increases in B.C. is faster than anywhere else but the demands on nurses are increasing, I think it’s fair to say, even more. And so (there’s) a need to invest in the future,” Dix said.

Grewal said in addition to adding more seats to training programs, retention incentives and finding ways to employ internationally-trained nurses will be key to addressing the problem.

The expansion of nursing programs is part of the StrongerBC Economic Plan, which aims to close the skills gap with a generational commitment to accelerate talent development and skills training for British Columbians.

Funding comes from $96 million committed over three years as part of last year’s budget to expand post-secondary education and training capacity for health professionals.

With files from The Candian Press