Visa categories debated as pressure builds over residency for nurses

The number of overseas nurses applying for work visas to live and earn in New Zealand has declined rapidly over the past few months.

That's putting pressure on the Government to fast track their residency instead of making nurses wait two years before being eligible to apply.

But the Government argues nurses are simply using other visa types, such as a visitor visa, to enter the country.

Among those migrant nursing families keen to call New Zealand home is the Sparks from America.

This week mum Misty Sparks, a nurse of 24 years, received a job offer at a hospice centre in Wellington.

"Very excited, very excited. If we could be there tomorrow we would," she said.

As a country desperate for more nurses the Sparks are a dream fit for New Zealand with dad Ashley also a nurse and the couple's children aren't far off.

"We have two sons that are 18 and 20 who are both nursing assistants and are wanting to go into nursing too," Misty said.

But while the family is excited, New Zealand's immigration settings mean they can't apply for residency until after they've spent two years here. The family says that makes it a struggle to buy a house or get a loan for their children's study.

"It could definitely help with us knowing that we could go directly into residency and not have to have that burden," Ashley said.

In the first half of this year more than a hundred work visa applications were received every month from overseas nurses.

But despite a peak in July of 174 applications, interest dropped in August and again in September. Last month there were just 39 applications, the lowest all year.

"What it tells you is that New Zealand doesn't have a competitive offering for international migrant nurses to come to New Zealand they are choosing to go to other places," National leader Christopher Luxon said.

But the Government is defending the decrease saying applications are simply going through other visa categories.

"The numbers drop under those categories but actually many people are coming in under a visitor visa category who will then go into nursing roles," Immigration Minister Michael Wood said.

A briefing by immigration officials earlier this year warned 1 in 4 nurses here are already from overseas. The advice stated this was "showing a growing reliance on a migrant workforce rather than domestic training...a fast track to residence could perpetuate this further through rapid growth".

"That was some advocacy to maybe have a slightly tighter policy in respect to residency pathways, we've also had some advocacy telling us to loosen that up and speed it up," Wood said.

The Government's revealed it's urgently looking into paid placements for nursing students here to ensure fewer drop out at the final hurdle. But critics argue we simply don't have the time to play catch up.

"Yes, we need to continue to develop homegrown nurses, but right here right now in the middle of a very intense crisis we need to be able to open up our channels"” Luxon said.

The Sparks family is hoping to arrive here in January at a time when every nurse counts.