By KELLY EVANS
Finding a job as a nurse isn’t as easy as it used to be.
Tiffany Hamilton will graduate in May from West Virginia University with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, but can’t find a job in critical care. "We were always told we’d have no problem getting a job," she said, "and here I am, senior year, having a horrible time trying to find one."
Ms. Hamilton, 22 years old, wants to become an anesthesiology nurse, but most graduate programs require at least one year of critical-care work. She began applying for positions in hospital emergency rooms and intensive-care units in December, focusing on the Pittsburgh area, where she grew up — but hasn’t gotten a single offer.
Her experience reflects a departure from years past when the U.S. health industry’s rapid growth outpaced the number of nurses entering the field. As of last summer, the nation had a shortage of roughly 125,000 nurses, based on vacancies at hospitals and in long-term care. That is still expected to balloon to 300,000 to more than one million nursing vacancies by 2020. But thanks to the recession, the nursing shortage appears to be waning, at least temporarily.
Long term, there is still a need to replace the profession’s aging work force and meet the growing demand for health care — particularly elderly care, a field that usually has trouble attracting nurses. But as is often the case during tough times, former nurses are re-entering the work force after a spouse loses a job. This time, the health-care industry is hurting, too, resulting in fewer positions for nurses. "It’s caused the otherwise severe nursing shortage to abate somewhat," said Bob Livonius, chief executive of Medfinders, an Arlington, Texas-based staffing firm. His agency, which historically has been able to fill only 70% to 80% of employers’ open positions, is now filling "in the 90s," Mr. Livonius said.
A recent survey of 658 hospitals by the American Hospital Association found more than half had negative profit margins in the fourth quarter, raising concerns that more layoffs are on the way. SMDC Health System in Duluth, Minn., a large health-care provider in the region, for instance, has laid off 55 workers this year, including about a dozen nurses last month, from its staff of 7,000.
"I feel sorry for new people coming out of nursing school right now because in this area, at least, there’s not a lot of jobs," said Carol Gentry, 49, a nurse in Portland, Ore. Ms. Gentry has been a nurse for 25 years, working her way up from the night shift to emergency-room management in Taos, N.M. But when she and her husband moved to Portland last year, she spent several months looking for a similar management job, to no avail. Two hospitals in the area had hiring freezes, while others were slow to make any hiring decisions. She finally accepted a job as a nurse at Legacy Emmanuel Hospital, putting her back on the night shift, and she is supplementing her income on her days off through a staffing company.
Like many who have re-entered the work force, Lesley Shanholtz, 29, was a stay-at-home mom with her two children in Lindale, Texas, until her husband was laid off last month from his job in the oil industry. She has gone back to work full time through NurseFinders, a division of MedFinders, working 12-hour hospital shifts for days at a time to bring home $1,500 or so a week. "Now he’s Mr. Mom and I’m working," she said.
"I see more nurses working now who might have stayed home when times were good," she said.
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