Sick Economy Means Nursing Jobs Harder To Find

Originally published on May 10, 2011 12:33 pm

Nursing degrees have long been touted as the golden tickets to immediate employment. But recent nursing graduates like Anna Lendabarker are coming into an unexpectedly tight job market.

Everyone told Lendabarker a nursing degree would give her lots of choices and let her do whatever she wanted. Now, she's discovering that's not really the case.

"I do feel a little let down at this point when searching for these jobs," she says. "You look and [you see] you need six years of experience — it's like, this is just getting kind of ridiculous."

Wait — haven't people been talking about a nursing shortage for years?

Haven't all those English majors been kicking themselves, thinking, "Ah, I should have gone to nursing school?"

It turns out the situation is a bit more complicated.

Rhys Gibson graduated in the spring of 2009 with a nursing degree from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He didn't land a job until that December.

At a recent career workshop for graduating seniors, he described his feelings.

"I thought I was the cat's meow and everything, because I'm an African-American guy coming out of here — I was waiting for the red carpet," he says. "I had the grades, had the experience, to an extent but not the practical experience as a nurse working on the floor."

After Recession, Holding Off Retirement

Since 1998, there's been a shortage of nurses, but then came the recession — and many older nurses set to retire decided to keep working instead. And as people lost their jobs and benefits, hospital visits decreased.

"We've also seen a lot of nurses with experience who might have been working part time come back to work at a point in time when they might not ordinarily have done that because spouses lost positions," says Patricia Lewis, associate dean at the UIC College of Nursing.

So recent nursing graduates now face a double whammy — more competition for fewer jobs. And all that comes as the number of nurses graduating with bachelor's degrees has more than doubled in the past decade.

But experts say be patient.

Boomers Expected To Boost Demand For Nurses

Peter Buerhaus, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who researches the labor market for nurses, says the shortage is going to come back: Baby boomers will need more health care and the nursing workforce is aging.

"We have an estimated 900,000 nurses who are in their 50s." he says. "That is more than a third of our workforce. Many of these RNs will reach retirement age and leave the market, so we've got to keep our eyes on the longer term."

But Buerhaus admits the timing is pretty lousy for new nurses now.

Lendabarker is realizing she may not get her ideal job working on a neonatal intensive care unit.

While going to school, she's been working at a small community hospital as a nurse assistant, and she hadn't planned to try to get a permanent job there.

"Hopefully I could work there but they're slow too," she says. "So it's kind of difficult to approach anyone in management saying, 'Do you need another nurse?' when they're canceling nurses left and right for shifts."

Adjusting Expectations

UIC's Lewis says there are jobs out there — in clinics and long-term-care facilities, and outside big cities. She's confident new nurses will find work once they adjust their expectations.

"I think there's disappointment and there's anxiety," she says. "I think that we've been able to assure them that really the prospects for their future careers are very good and I do think that they believe it. They just wish it would come faster."

So if you're an 8-year-old out there considering a job in nursing, you may just hit the sweet spot of that big shortage expected by 2025.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Graduating from college at a time of high unemployment is stressful. But you might be surprised to hear about one of the groups that's especially stressed. As Ashley Gross of member station WBEZ in Chicago explains, these students have a degree that was touted as a golden ticket to employment.

ASHLEY GROSS: Anna Lendabarker is just now hitting the job market after studying for four years to be a nurse. Everyone told her a nursing degree would give her lots of choices and let her do whatever she wanted. Now she's discovering that's not really the case.

ANNA LENDABARKER: I do feel a little let down at this point, when searching for these jobs, and you look, and you say you need six years of experience. It's like: This is just getting kind of ridiculous.

GROSS: Rhys Gibson graduated with a nursing degree in spring 2009 from the University of Illinois Chicago. He didn't land a job until that December. At a recent career workshop for graduating seniors, he described his feelings.

RHYS GIBSON: I mean I thought I was the cat's meow and everything because, you know, I'm an African-American guy coming out of here. I was waiting for the red carpet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GIBSON: I had the grades. I had the experience to an extent but not the practical experience as a nurse working on the floor.

GROSS: And as people lost their jobs and benefits, hospital visits decreased. Patricia Lewis is associate dean at the UIC College of Nursing.

PATRICIA LEWIS: We've also seen a lot of nurses with experience who might have been working part-time come back to work at a point in time when they might not ordinarily have done that because spouses lost positions.

GROSS: Peter Buerhaus is a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who researches the labor market for nurses. He says the shortage is going to come back. Baby boomers will need more health care, and the nursing workforce is aging.

PETER BUERHAUS: We have an estimated 900,000 nurses who are in their 50s. That's more than a third of our workforce. Many of these RNs will reach retirement age and leave the market. So we have got to sort of keep our eyes on the longer term.

GROSS: While going to school, she's been working at a small community hospital as a nurse assistant, and she hadn't planned to try to get a permanent job there.

LENDABARKER: Hopefully I could work there, but they're slow, too. So it's kind of difficult to, like, approach anyone in management saying do you need another nurse when they're canceling nurses left and right for shifts.

GROSS: UIC's Patricia Lewis says there are jobs out there: in clinics and long- term care facilities, and outside big cities. And she's confident new nurses will find work once they adjust their expectations.

LEWIS: I think there's disappointment, and there's anxiety. I think that we have been able to assure them that really the prospects for their future careers are very good, and I do think that they believe it. They just wish it would come faster.

GROSS: For NPR News, I'm Ashley Gross in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.