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Saturday, May 2, 2009

No more nursing shortage

JACKSONVILLE — Alison Carpenter is fresh from graduation at the University of North Florida with ink barely dried on her nursing degree, and she’s realizing the grim reality of entering the work force. She knows that even as a newly graduated nurse, she might not be working as one any time soon. Health care officials say the nursing shortage that has plagued hospitals for years has, at least temporarily, been alleviated.

The recession has prompted many nurses to re-enter the work force while others have delayed retirement. Those employment trends, coupled with staff reductions at many hospitals, have made for few job opportunities for nursing students exiting colleges across the country.

Debra Hernke, chief nursing officer for Mayo Clinic Florida, said the Jacksonville hospital typically gets up to 150 applications for nursing positions, and would hire 20 or “as many new graduates as possible.” This summer, Mayo expects to hire fewer than 10, and most of those will be internal hires of students already working in some other capacity.

Mayo, like many hospitals, has seen a significant decline in turnover as nurses with jobs cling to them, and is staffing as efficiently as possible.

“We are seeing many nurses picking up extra shifts, nurses returning to the work force, and older nurses delaying retirement in an effort to increase their income during the tough economic times,” said David Alexander, president of Soliant Health, a health care staffing arm of Jacksonville-based MPS Group Inc. (NYSE: MPS)

That means the days of soaring pay, hiring incentives and attractive benefits packages that hospitals have used to attract nurses in prior years have all but disappeared. Students like Carpenter, one of 60 nursing students who just graduated from UNF, will have to fight harder for the few jobs that are available.

“There aren’t a lot of jobs,” Carpenter said. “It’s something that nursing students graduating today struggle with.”
Graduates outstrip jobs

Dr. Pam Chally, dean of the Brooks College of Health at UNF, said she knows that there will be “significantly” fewer jobs than nurses graduating this year, a trend she and others began noticing in January. She is advising her new graduates, who might have otherwise held out for the best shifts in a good unit, to consider applying to a public health department or hospice facility, and make themselves available for less desirable night and weekend shifts.

“We’ve really tried to encourage them to be very open and creative at trying to locate job possibilities,” Chally said. “There just isn’t the demand right now, especially in hospitals.”

While students are forced to be more flexible, hospitals have the unfamiliar luxury of being picky about their hires, and are looking for more nurses with a bachelor’s degree and experience working in health care.

Carpenter said just three of her classmates had secured jobs by graduation. Even her year and a half of experience working as a nursing technician for St. Vincent’s HealthCare is no guarantee that the hospital, which has undergone three rounds of layoffs in the past two years, will hire her full time. In past years, a bit of experience might have made her a shoo-in for a nursing job.
Harsh market

Carpenter, who is from Orlando, said she has just two weeks following her licensing exam in May before the lease to her apartment expires. If she doesn’t have a job by then, she’ll have to return home to live with her parents.

It’s a story that can be told right now from virtually any U.S. college, where graduating students are facing one of the harshest job markets in a generation.

Dwight Cooper, CEO of Jacksonville-based PPR Healthcare Staffing, which places traveling nurses in jobs, calls it “the lost class.”

“One big byproduct of this change in shortage is a whole bunch of students will have difficulty getting jobs when they graduate in the spring and summer,” Cooper said. “It will result in some subset of graduates who would have otherwise ended up working in hospitals to end up never working in hospitals. That’s a problem because this break in the shortage will be short-lived. This lost class will contribute to a critical shortage later.”

Industry experts agree. They say that like the last recession, once the economy improves, nurses who would otherwise not be in the work force will leave their jobs. Meanwhile, an aging baby boomer population and declines in students enrolling in nursing programs will continue.

Alexander said Soliant is predicting a shortage of up to 275,000 nurses by 2010, and as many as 1 million by 2020.

“The shortage is a long-term issue because the nurses who are coming back don’t want to work full time,” Alexander said. “We will still have an aging work force, a growing demand for health care and a shortage of nurses coming out of college.”
Tracking job placement

Chally said some of the new nursing graduates at UNF are already considering graduate school to delay entering the work force, and an additional 80 nursing students will graduate in June and August.

In the meantime, she’ll be keeping a close eye on job placement for the most recent graduate class.

“I think the students have a pretty positive attitude about all this,” Chally said. “We’ve had close to 100 percent employment, always. So it will be important as we move through the summer to carefully track their job placement. I really think that in the next six months, most of them will find positions.”


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