Nursing is in Colleen Callender's blood. From her mother to her aunts to her cousins, the 24-year-old's family is full of women in the nursing profession.
So, amid widespread talk of a nursing shortage when Callender entered the registered nursing program at Atlantic Cape Community College in 2008, her career choice appeared obvious. Local nursing programs had expanded to accommodate more students, and job security seemed to be guaranteed, she said.
Yet more than eight months after Callender graduated from Atlantic Cape, she remains unemployed. She can rattle off about a dozen nursing jobs she's applied for without so much as a returned phone call from the employer.
"I did not expect this," Callender said. "It's been so frustrating because I don't have any bad habits. I'm 24. I have so many years ahead of me, but I can't get hired. Everyone said we'd have job security, but that doesn't seem to be the case."
That's a drastically different picture of the nursing industry than the one painted just a few years ago.
In 2004, a study of the region's health care work force conducted by the Atlantic and Cape May Workforce Investment Board found that the most pressing need in the local healthcare industry was for registered nurses. More than 11 percent of the nursing jobs available, including those at four acute-care hospitals, were unfilled, the study said.
Yet today, hospitals say that for the past four to five years the number of new nursing jobs available has remained static, while in some cases, the number of applicants has increased by more than 40 percent.
Those in the nursing industry say when the economy took a turn for the worse, older nurses who would have otherwise retired opted to keep their jobs. And other well-qualified nurses who had recently retired wanted to come back to work, making the market that much tighter.
What does it all mean for graduates of registered nursing programs?
Callender enrolled in a Rutgers University nursing program that was developed in partnership with Atlantic Cape. The Rutgers program augments an associates degree, and its graduates go on to earn a bachelor's in nursing.
In the past two years, nearly 50 of the 140 graduates of Atlantic Cape's nursing program have gone straight to the Rutgers program, many because they're unable to find work, college officials said.
"We have students that come back after graduation and say, ‘I don't have a job. What do I do?'" said Carol Mohrfeld, chair of the nursing department at Atlantic Cape Community College. "The question becomes: Is it right to send all of these people out with the promise of jobs when there aren't any?"
Too many graduates
After the Workforce Investment Board study was released in 2004, area nursing programs were on a mission to grow. More instructors were hired. Some academic buildings were expanded, and more students were accepted into nursing programs.
Atlantic Cape, which had traditionally taken on about 70 to 80 students a year, took in about 100 in 2005. But the school soon realized their graduates were not getting jobs. Today, the school has cut back to about 70 students a year.
"We have kind of flooded the market," Mohrfeld said. "Baby boomers are not leaving their jobs. Do I think that's going to change soon? Yes. But no one can really say when."
It's a similar story at Cumberland County College. There, in 2006, the school turned out 44 nursing program graduates. A year later, the number increased to more than 70.
Between 2005 and 2008, Cumberland's program saw at least 98 percent of graduates employed within six months of graduation. But in 2009, when 71 students graduated from the program, only 87 percent were employed within six months.
The school doesn't have exact data showing how many of the 62 students who graduated the program in 2010 are employed. But college officials said they believe about 80 percent of those graduates have jobs today.
"New graduates are being employed, but many are hired only part-time," said Alice Myers, CCC's director of nursing. "The big change is that many are working in alternative employment areas such as physician offices, long-term care and home care, versus a few years ago when most new graduates were hired in hospitals as full-time, benefited employees."
Same number of openings
At AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Susan Battaglia, the center's director of nursing recruitment and retention, said that within the past two or three years, the number of applicants for the hospital's new nursing positions have steadily increased. In recent years, the hospital, which has about 1,000 nurses on staff, has hired about 50 new nurses each year. Those nurses have a combination of associate's degrees, bachelor's degrees or masters degrees.
In the past two to three years, the hospital saw applications jump from about 350 to about 500 for the 50 available positions.
"I tell new grads all the time that there's still a nursing shortage. It's just in a bit of a lull right now," Battaglia said. "We also tell people not to put all of their eggs in one basket. I think people think the only nursing jobs are in a hospital, but there are clinics, nursing homes, schools and physicians' offices as well."
At Cape Regional Medical Center, the hospital has consistently budgeted for 220 nurses in each of the last five years. And just like AtlantiCare, the number of applicants for those jobs is on the rise.
"We are seeing an increase in RN applications, including applicants who have graduated over a year ago and have not been able to find employment in an acute-care setting," Cape Regional spokesman Tom Piratzky said. "We believe that there is less turnover of RNs in this area due to the uncertainly of the economy and the need for healthcare benefits."
Nationwide, the average age of a nurse is 46. Studies project that by 2012 the average will drop to about 44.5 years, but nurses in their 50s will make up the largest section of the workforce, accounting for nearly one-fourth of the nursing population, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing says.
"The applicants that we see today are different. We see a lot of nontraditional students - people from the casino industry going back to school - who say they never would have thought of nursing, but the industry seems more stable," Battaglia said. "I really believe it's just a temporary lull. It's a great profession, and we want to keep encouraging people to pursue it."
Some stay in school
With nursing jobs harder to come by, more graduates of associate's degree programs are going on to earn a bachelor's degree, college officials said.
In September 2009, Rutgers University took in its first class of students from the Atlantic Cape nursing program. The program is designed for students who have already earned an associate's degree and are going on to earn a bachelor's in nursing.
In the past two years, about 36 percent of ACCC's nursing graduates have enrolled in the Rutgers program, which now has about 50 students. About 10 will graduate in May, said Nancy Powell, the program's coordinator.
"Some hospitals are only hiring nurses with a (bachelor's degree)," Powell said. "I think that's been a serious problem for the associate's degree graduates. Many aren't even getting interviews."
Interest in the program is clearly growing, said Powell, noting that she speaks with about 10 people each week who say they're interested in applying for the program.
"This trend only benefits the college and the students in the nursing program," said Myers, Cumberland County College's director of nursing.
Overall, there's no difference in the scope of practice for a nurse with an associate's degree versus what a nurse with a bachelor's degree. But many acute-care facilities see a nurse with a bachelor's degree as an individual with increase management potential, Myers said.
Mohrfeld said encouraging students to earn a bachelor's has become part of the culture at the school in light of the lack of available jobs.
"We say, ‘Look, if you can't get a job, why not start taking classes towards your bachelor's?'" Mohrfeld said. "The fortunate thing here is that more education while you're job searching can't be a bad thing."
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