Staff Photo by John Rawlston Registered nurse Sheila Hales, left, an instructor with the Cleveland State Community College nursing program, works with nursing students Mary Kibler and Stephanie Ramsey, right, at Parkridge Hospital.
Confident that she could walk into her dream job as a pediatric nurse immediately after getting her nursing degree, Christy Paris left a job she loved to start nursing school two years ago.
Now, she's kicking herself.
"I have applied at most all pediatric positions that I can find online," said Ms. Paris, 38, a Rock Spring, Ga., resident who had been a day-care center director for 20 years. "That's what I wanted to roll into, but that's impossible. ... If I had known that before I'd started nursing school, I probably wouldn't have started right now."
Still, the single mother of two boys said she considers herself lucky. Thanks to a pre-graduation internship at Hutcheson Medical Center, she was able to slip into a general nursing position at the hospital after her June graduation from Georgia Northwestern Technical College.
But many of her fellow students still are struggling to find work, she said.
"They go to interview after interview, and they don't get any call back. There's just so many of us," she said. "You hear everybody talk about the nursing shortage, the nursing shortage. I don't see one at all."
In the midst of an economic recession, the shortage of nurses in the United States has eased somewhat, experts said.
Current nurses are delaying retirement, putting off a career move or switching from part-time shifts to full-time employment, local hospital nursing executives said. Many experienced nurses are returning to the work force after a spouse has lost a job.
With fewer openings, recent nursing school grads are finding it harder to land a job in a profession often seen as recession-proof.
But hospital nursing executives in Tennessee and Georgia emphasized that a nationwide nursing shortage is still very much real, especially in rural regions, and they worry that a perceived surplus of nurses will lead to an even more severe shortfall years down the road.
"One of my major fears is that people will feel that the nursing shortage is ending," said Lynn Whisman, chief nursing officer at Erlanger hospital. "There is a lull right now, but it is going to be a short-term lull, and the nursing shortage is going to get even worse. ... It really is scary to me as a chief nursing officer what lies ahead."
At Erlanger, vacancies are lower than a year ago, with 4 percent of RN positions open, compared to 5.8 percent in July 2008, she said.
Memorial Hospital's current nurse vacancy rate is 2.3 percent, compared to 7 percent in 2007, said Diona Brown, chief nurse executive at Memorial.
FEWER SPOTS, MORE GRADUATES
Turnover at local hospitals is even more stable than usual, with employed nurses delaying career moves in an uncertain job market, hospital nursing executives said.
"I think (nurses) have got their feet firmly planted where they are kind of riding out the tides to see what's going to happen with the recession," said Debbie Reeves, chief nursing officer at Hutcheson Medical Center.
Last year's graduates from the nursing program at Dalton State College had an unusually hard time finding jobs and couldn't be as choosy as in the past, said Dr. Cordia Starling, dean of the school of nursing at the college.
"That's pretty unusual. Most of the time they're able to get what they want, where they want, when they want," she said. "I think all of them will eventually find a job. They may not be able to be (as) picky about it, but I think it's just taking a little longer."
After a nationwide nursing shortage peaked in 2001, when hospital nurse vacancy rates averaged 13 percent, an influx of new nurses hit the industry, according to a July article published in the journal Health Affairs.
"Nursing is a cycle. We see periods of time when there is a huge shortage, and following that, you usually do have an influx" because of perceived job security in the nursing field, said Deborah Deal, associate chief nursing officer at Parkridge Medical Center. "There still is a need for people that really truly want to be nurses ... because it will cycle back around."
Nursing school administrators say interest in the nursing profession has exploded over the past few years, thanks to promotion of the field as a career option and, more recently, from students seeking jobs seen as secure in a recession.
In 2007 and 2008, the number of nurses employed in hospitals nationwide grew by 243,000, the article said. The number of younger nurses, between the ages of 23 and 25, reached 130,000 in 2008, the highest level in 20 years.
That's brought even more qualified graduates to the job market, especially in Chattanooga, which is surrounded by a number of nursing schools in Tennessee and North Georgia.
The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's School of Nursing received 501 applications this year, compared to 400 last year, said Dr. Kay Lindgren, director of the school of nursing at UTC. She is applying for a federal grant to increase the school's enrollment from 60 to 78 students.
To ward off a future shortage, school officials must persist in efforts to expand enrollment and add faculty members to train new nurses, despite the perception that there are plenty of nurses today, Dr. Lindgren said.
Nursing school enrollment is limited by nursing faculty, and many nursing school teachers are nearing retirement age, nursing school administrators said.
Across the country nursing schools have had to turn away 30,000 qualified nursing applicants each year since 2002 because of limited size of classes, according to the Health Affairs article.
"If we try to artificially slow down what we're doing, it will be a worse catastrophe than has been predicted," Dr. Lindgren said.
The most growth in nursing employment since 2001 has been in nurses older than 50 who accounted for 77 percent of the increase in RN employment, the Health Affairs article stated.
As those older nurses retire and aging baby boomers demand more nursing care, experts are projecting a serious shortfall of nurses starting in 2018 and peaking at a shortage of 260,000 nurses in 2025, according to the Health Affairs report.
* Peak nursing shortage in 2001: 13 percent nurse vacancy rates at hospitals, 126,000 unfilled RN positions
* Nurse employment growth in 2007 and 2008: 243,000 full-time equivalent positions
* Increase in nurse employment from 2001 to 2008 comprised of:
- 28 percent younger RNs (under age 35)
- 77 percent older RNs (over age 50)
* Projecting nursing shortfall: 260,000 by 2025
SOURCE: "The Recent Surge in Nurse Employment: Causes and Implications," Health Affairs, July/August issue
Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...