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Where’s the Shortage? New RNs Find Difficult Job Hunting

Monday September 27, 2010
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Despite a widely held belief that nursing was a “recession-proof” profession, new graduates in many areas of the country report difficulty finding jobs.

Surveys by the National Student Nurses Association of 2009 and 2010 new graduates show more than 40% of respondents had not found a nursing job by midsummer. The American Hospital Association reports an RN vacancy rate of 4% in March, down from 11.4% in 2006. Some nursing school deans say their students are having a much more difficult time finding jobs than in the past. Associate degree nurses are having the hardest time finding entry-level positions, says Diane J. Mancino, RN, EdD, CAE, executive director of the National Student Nursing Association. “Vacancies, when they do exist, are often filled first with BSN grads.”

Analysts say most of the hiring slowdown is because of the economy, with older RNs deciding to stay in the workforce because their retirement funds have not recovered from a stock-market drop in 2008, or a spouse was laid off, or they are just nervous about the economy. Some 90% of hospitals surveyed by the AHA in March reported they had not added back staff hours or positions cut during the deepest part of the recession in 2008, and 98% said they had not restored services or programs cut during that time. Workforce data also shows a bubble of nurses who left the workforce or went to part-time work — usually to raise a family — and have returned in recent years, says Joanne Spetz, PhD, associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco School of Nursing and faculty researcher at the Center for California Health Workforce Studies.

Nursing leaders and educators are sympathetic to new graduates hunting for jobs in a sluggish economy, but many believe the situation is not as dire as some may see it and will not last long. They urge new grads to widen their searches, go back to school, work in long-term care, volunteer at a clinic — anything to keep up their nursing skills until acute-care jobs come back.

And they will come back, workforce analysts say. Older nurses will retire. More people are expected to get health insurance because of healthcare reform. Those who have been putting off surgery because of the recession eventually will have the procedures done. A Vanderbilt University report last year projected a shortage of 260,000 nurses by 2025.

“There really is a nursing shortage, it’s just hidden right now,” says Sheila A. Haas, RN, PhD, FAAN, a professor of the Niehoff School of Nursing at Loyola University Chicago and a past president of the American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing.

RN graduates are not alone. Would-be teachers, engineers and accountants, all in traditionally popular fields, report difficulty finding work after graduation. Although prospects may be slowly improving — employers plan to hire 5% more new graduates this year than they did a year ago, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers — no one knows when the economy will fully recover.

Many analysts and educators say they expect hospitals to start hiring within a year or two. The 2000 Institute of Medicine report on medical errors, “To Err is Human,” along with new patient safety legislation and regulations are forcing CEOs to think about quality of care, Spetz says. “One of the more effective ways to improve the quality of care is increasing the number of nurses.”

Workforce data shows although nearly 450,000 nurses received RN licenses between 2004 and 2008, the number of nurses went up by only 150,000, suggesting some 300,000 have left the workforce, says Geraldine Bednash, RN, PhD, FAAN, CEO and executive director of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. “We’re beginning to see the first waves of retirement.”

Labor department data shows the healthcare sector is still growing, albeit slowly, and “nursing is growing more than every other sector,” says Beverly Malone, RN, PhD, CEO for the National League for Nursing. “Just not everywhere.”

Cathryn Domrose is a staff writer.


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