Nursing school grads see opportunities shrink
Nursing student Caleb Hansen, right, examines classmate Joe Squillace's external ear and eardrum with an otoscope on Wednesday, April 22, 2009, in their health assessment and intervention classat the South Dakota State University West River school of nursing in Rapid City. The job market for graduating nurses has declined. (Photo by Ryan Soderlin/Journal staff)

When Whitney Lenz began nursing school in 2007, nurses could basically pick and choose their dream jobs.

Not anymore.

Under the weight of a worsening economy, hospitals nationally are cutting pay, eliminating raises and laying off employees. Rapid City Regional Hospital, which employs 777 registered nurses, hired 64 nurses last year. This year, the hospital expects to cut back to just 40 to 50 new hires.

For nursing students who were expecting a smooth transition into the work force after graduation, the situation looks grim for getting their preferred job.

"It's been very nerve-wracking," Lenz said. "It was way different when I first decided to be a nurse."

But Barb Hobbs, head of the South Dakota State University West River School of Nursing in Rapid City, is trying to calm students' nerves with a little history lesson.

"I've seen this cycle happen over and over again. … Hospitals basically pull back temporarily. … But as the economy improves, they will re-establish positions, because you know the patients are still going to come," she said. "We try to tell our students that this is a transient thing."

In the mid-1990s, the nursing industry nationwide began warning of a pending nursing shortage. According to a 2004 nursing survey, more than 1 million new and replacement nurses will be needed by 2012 to care for the aging baby boomer generation.

At the time of the survey, 75 percent of hospital openings nationwide were for nursing positions.

In South Dakota, vacancy rates for registered nursing positions were at 5.8 percent in 2005, up from 3.9 percent in 2002.

To fill the jobs, South Dakota nursing organizations formed the South Dakota Center for Nursing Workforce. The alliance promoted solutions to the shortage, including educating the public about nursing and increasing educational options.

SDSU in Brookings and the University of South Dakota in Vermillion increased class sizes and admitted nursing students more often throughout the school years. SDSU added an accelerated one-year program for students who already had an undergraduate degree. Nursing scholarships also were increased and expanded.

The changes worked, said Linda Young, director of the Center for Nursing Workforce.

In 1999, there were 976 students enrolled in registered nursing programs in the state. Last year, that number had risen to 1,699. "It had a good effect," she said.

Now some of those students are wondering what kind of options they will have after graduation.

Lenz, who will graduate May 2, said a lot of her classmates are looking into the military as an alternative to the iffy private job market. Lenz hopes to work in an emergency department, but realizes she might not have her first pick in jobs.

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Young admits that during such economic times, employed registered nurses usually keep their positions, and new nurses sometimes have to be a little less picky.

"At this point, new graduate nurses may not get to pick exactly where they want to go for their first job," Young said. "But we know … this economic downturn will turn around. … Historically, nursing is a very secure profession."

That push to second- and third-choice jobs could even be a bonus for South Dakota. New nursing graduates might take jobs in rural areas, which often struggle to keep nurses, Young said.

Despite the current belt-tightening in the medical field, the Center for Nursing Workforce is not planning to change its course. Young said that the average age of nurses in the state is 46. By 2015, many of today's nurses will be nearing retirement age. Without an adequate supply of new nurses to fill the void, the result could be dramatic.

"We just have to be diligent and continue to prepare for 2015 when those nurses will begin retiring in greater numbers," she said.

Hobbs said that the reality of the situation is that hospitals and nursing homes need nurses. "When it comes right down to it, the person they need at the bedside is a nurse," she said. For that reason, she's confident the tide will turn and her students will be just fine.

Although Lenz is concerned, she's decided to take the advice of her instructors and stay positive.

"I know it will turn around," she said. "You just don't know how long it will take."

Contact Lynn Taylor Rick at lynn.taylorrick@rapidcityjournal.com or 394-8414.

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