BY THE NUMBERS
* 83,647 - Registered nurses in Tennessee in 2011
* 21 - New registered nursing schools in Tennessee from 2000 to 2011
Source: Tennessee Board of Nursing
Once considered the degree that guaranteed you a job, registered nurses are experiencing a slightly tighter job market in the Chattanooga area recently, experts say.
Tennessee has added more than 10,000 registered nurses in the last five years and - with four nursing schools in the Chattanooga area - local hospitals say they have no problem filling their empty nursing spots.
But even though nurses may not see their resumes snatched up immediately and newly licensed nurses might get stuck with third shift or weekend shifts, a nursing career is still a solid job choice that offers numerous opportunities.
"We're not having a huge shortage, and we're not having a glut either," said Deborah Deal, associate chief nursing officer at Parkridge Medical Center.
The hospital has recently seen an increase in applications from experienced nurses, Deal said, but has also increased its nursing staff in the last few months. Memorial Hospital officials said they occasionally have difficulty hiring experienced nurses, while recent graduates may have a harder time finding a job.
Local nursing school officials say they still have far more applicants than they can accept into their programs, and most of their graduates soon land jobs. But those nurses might need to move out of state or take a job that is not their first choice.
Most schools do not have numbers on their spring graduates because they wait to track numbers until six months after graduation.
In 2008, 89 percent of nursing graduates from Chattanooga State Community College found jobs in Chattanooga, but last year that number declined to 85 percent. And their registered nurse graduates working in nursing homes went from 4 percent to 7 percent during the same period, according to numbers from the college.
In 2007, 100 percent of nursing graduates from Dalton State College found jobs within six months. In 2011, that number had dropped to 90 percent.
At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, job placement has remained steady at about 100 percent, but those nurses may be recruited from across the United States, officials said.
"We're always hearing about the upcoming shortage, and then it never happens," said Lynn Whisman, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer at Erlanger Health System. "Today we don't see a lot of problems in recruiting, but I do think it is coming."
Amie Fugate, a nursing student at Chattanooga State scheduled to graduate next year, said she is not hugely concerned about finding a job when she is handed her degree. All her nursing friends who graduated this year have found jobs, and both professors and recruiters have worked to prepare them for the current job market.
Fugate, 32, said her reason for going into nursing was to help people, not to be guaranteed a job. And she is willing to move for the right job.
School officials are warning that job prospects might not fall into graduating students' laps, but she's confident, she said.
"They're telling us it may not be as easy as we thought, but I think we'll be OK," she said.
During the economic recession, many nurses have chosen not to retire. Others have come back into the workforce or began working more hours. The median age for nurses has increased steadily.
At some point, especially as the economy improves, aging nurses will begin to retire, experts say, and Tennessee is one of the states expected to see shortages.
"We are between a rock and a hard place," said Sharon Adkins, executive director of the Tennessee Nurses Association. "You don't want to stop educating nurses, because you need to have those nurses in the pipeline."
Federal health care reform is expected to increase the demand for nurses. In addition, nurses with advanced degrees will likely take a larger role in administering care at a primary care level.
A recent shift has also moved toward more advanced degrees and continuing education. This year, Dalton State College added a bachelor's degree program for registered nurses who have a two-year associate's degree.
Chattanooga State officials noted that recent changes have made it much easier for nurses with associate degrees to move into bachelor's degree programs.
Online programs have increased and some programs now offer dual-enrollment opportunities for nurses in community colleges, said Cynthia Swafford, who heads up Chattanooga State's nursing program.
Local hospitals said about 25 to 35 percent of their registered nursing staff have four-year degrees. Statewide, that number is about 40 percent. Nationwide, the goal is that 80 percent of registered nurses have a four-year degree by 2020.
"Nursing is still one of the most trusted and respected careers out there," Whisman said. "Health care reform and coming changes will offer a prime opportunity for nurses at all levels."