Fewer openings for nurses looks temporary

January 15, 2010
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At the same time that hiring in nursing is dwindling, the profession is facing a shortage.

The paradox is the result of the slow economy and a significant proportion of nurses nearing retirement age, local nursing officials saw.

After years of touting a nursing career as a nearly guaranteed job, the number of available jobs has dropped. Despite the drop in nursing jobs available locally, the need for additional nurses is only temporarily hiding, said Shawn Ulreich, chair of the West Michigan Nursing Advisory Council and chief nursing officer at Spectrum Health.

“I think in West Michigan what we’ve seen is certainly a softening of the shortage for lots of different reasons, and the economy being the primary one,” Ulreich said. “But I wouldn’t say that the shortage is over in the state of Michigan. I think there’s a convergence of a number of factors. One of the biggest drivers is the economy and the downturn in the economy.”

Nurses who had planned to retire or cut back hours now are reluctant to do so, she said. That’s because their spouses may have experienced layoffs or cutbacks, making that nursing job more important than ever to the household income. “As the economy gets better, many times we see nurses stepping out of the work force,” she said.

According to the Michigan Center for Nursing’s 2009 report, of registered nurses renewing their licenses in 2008, 17.7 percent said they intended to leave the profession within five years. That means the state could lose 16,577 nurses by 2013, while 16,615 newly minted RNs would be produced in the same period, leaving a shortfall of nearly 1,000.

“We have had a perfect storm in the last nine months,” Michigan Center for Nursing Director Carole Stacy said.

The nation’s highest unemployment rate means many Michigan citizens have lost health insurance and are avoiding medical care. Some nurses who had planned to retire changed their minds when spouses lost jobs or when their retirement savings shrank with the stock market in late 2008. Some nurses who were working part-time or on-call increased their hours, filling spots that otherwise may have gone to new nurses.

“We didn’t have the numbers of nurses retiring and leaving that we anticipated,” Stacy said. “All of the nursing schools have ramped up their capacity and increased nursing classes, some as much as doubling them. So we had all these brand new grads coming out, and some of them found it very difficult to find a job.”

Rather than the several job offers that may have awaited each new nurse, the offers are less numerous and less likely to include preferred shifts and specialties, Ulreich said.

At Saint Mary’s Health Care, nursing vacancies amount to less than 1 percent of the staff, said Vice President Micki Benz.

“People think the nursing shortage is over, and that’s not true,” Benz said. “We’ve seen this before, this ebb and flow.”

“We’re going to see opportunities for nurses, but they are not going to be the opportunities whereby a new graduate is going to have five or 10 different jobs offers,” Ulreich added. “The job offer may not be their first choice in terms of unit or shift, but there are still opportunities — just not the plethora we’ve seen in the past.”

Yet the wave of retirements is on the horizon, noted Stacy, who recommends that nurses who can’t find a job go back to school for a higher degree.

“If you’re a nurse who is 60 or older, there is only so long you can work. This really has been just a blip. We really cannot stop or go back on all the efforts we have initiated to get more nurses,” she said.

Although hospitals are the largest employers of nurses, Ulreich urged nurses to consider jobs in long-term care or home health care.

“I’ve sent out letters to all the schools saying tell your students to hang tough. There are jobs out there; don’t leave the state. Stay if you possibly can,” Stacy added. “This will turn around, and when it turns around, I think it’s just going to be huge.”

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