Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

Nursing Isn’t Always Recession Proof

Published in the Spring 2010 Carolina Nursing magazine

When the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing BSN Class of 2009 began classes in the fall of 2007, the nursing shortage was in full swing. These students happily studied and completed their clinical rotations, confident in the knowledge that they would be employed when they finished their degree.

Then, suddenly everything changed with “the Great Recession.” Now, the job market that needed them – one where they had their pick of hospital and location – was shrinking, and the jobs that had been plentiful were evaporating. The situation did not improve by the time they received their diplomas.

“We definitely had many more new graduates applying for jobs than we had jobs that we could fill with new graduates,” said Mary Tonges, senior vice president and chief nursing officer for UNC Healthcare. “Retention has been way up, turn over has been way down, and we have more experienced nurses applying for the same jobs that new grads are seeking.”

The economy is keeping nurses in the workforce longer, causing many to rethink early retirement plans or career-changing.

At first glance, the much-touted nursing shortage seems to have disappeared. But, according to Tonges, the healthcare industry can’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet – the shortage will return as soon as the economy begins to turn around. The need will be especially great in North Carolina where both an aging and growing population will require nurses to provide care.

The temporary overstock of practicing nurses hasn’t put a damper on application rates, and class admission is as competitive as ever. Many students are struggling, however, because there is not sufficient scholarship support to help them complete their education. This is problematic because, as history tells us, people traditionally look to education and re-education when the economy slumps.

Beverly Malone, chief executive officer for the National League for Nursing

According to Beverly Malone, chief executive officer of the National League for Nursing (NLN), the economic downturn is touching nursing education in several secondary ways. Bleeding state budgets have cut money to state-supported higher education institutions, making it harder for administrators to attract quality nursing faculty with competitive salaries.

But the faculty environment at the SON is different, said professor Marilyn Oermann. She said she believes the School has largely escaped the faculty shortage.

“The nursing faculty shortage is certainly a problem nationwide,” Oermann said. “However, we have been fortunate not to experience that problem here. I truly feel that both our excellent reputation and the strong pull of living in a beautiful area like Chapel Hill have saved us this hardship.”

Regardless of whether a school currently has a faculty shortage, Malone said that the current economic climate gives the nursing profession an excellent opportunity to strengthen existing relationships, as well as grow new ones.

“I believe whole-heartedly that, in this economy, it is time for those of us in nursing to stand together. Deans have to support their faculty, and the rest of us in the profession must support our deans,” Malone said. “This is a difficult time, so it’s important for support to go in both directions.”

Frustrations might exist elsewhere, but nursing is still a growth industry in North Carolina, said David Kalbacker, director of public information for the North Carolina Board of Nursing. While many healthcare environments are seeing less turnover, fewer vacant jobs and fewer retirees, there are still hospitals that offer opportunity to new graduates. For example, he said, Cape Fear Valley Health System in Fayetteville, N.C., extended employment offers to 55 new graduates over the past year.

Unfortunately, a lack of qualified instructors isn’t the only problem students face, Malone said. Many older nursing students finding themselves forced to choose between a nursing degree and paying their mortgage. According to a 2002 National Health Foundation study, 20 percent of BSN students and 18 percent of associate degree students drop out of nursing school. Of those, nearly 42 percent leave due to financial hardship. In addition, foundations have also circled their wagons, keeping a tighter hold on their grant award dollars than they have previously.

But, according to Kathy Moore, the director of the School of Nursing Office of Admissions and Student Services, applications to the SON have remained strong. Undergraduate applications have remained stable, and graduate applications jumped 60 percent over the past academic year. Overall, that’s good news because more advanced practice nurses are needed to care for our aging population.

There is a hope that some of these students will continue on to pursue a doctorate with the goal of becoming nurse faculty, fostering the production of quality, baccalaureate-trained nurses. Data from a 2002 NLN survey revealed that 75 percent of the current nursing faculty will retire by 2019, with approximately 1,800 leaving their positions each year. The NLN estimated that 10,000 master’s students graduate annually, and, of those, 15 percent would need to become faculty simply to maintain the current faculty status quo.

The faculty shortage impact, however, is a long-ranging problem. Recent graduates have felt the most immediate impact from the economy, however, as they have been pushed to look beyond their first job choices and even consider leaving the region to gain employment.

“In previous years, students could come to me and say, ‘I want a job with these particular characteristics,’ and they would probably find it,” Moore said. “Now, however, they’re having to look beyond those strict parameters and rethink the career they envisioned for themselves.”

Despite the current economic conditions, there is hope on the horizon that nursing education will begin to regain some of the support has lost, Malone said. As part of the ongoing talks on healthcare reform, the Obama administration is floating discussions about loan forgiveness programs that have vanished to a great extent. The U.S. Congress is also weighing in, considering the reauthorization of both Title VII and Title VIII that have aimed at growing geographic, racial and ethnic diversity in the health professions.

“We see opportunities in nursing education,” Malone said. “With each cloud there there is a silver lining. The door will open wide again for nursing, and there will be many opportunities in healthcare and nursing education.”


March 23, 2010 - Posted by | Healthcare | , , , , , ,

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