Career Center Blog

April 26, 2010

The calm before Washington's nursing shortage storm


NWjobs

The last few years of this recession has provided all job seekers a harsh lesson in the realities of market economics. However, one labor segment - nursing - seems to defy the conventional laws of supply and demand.

For decades, licensed nurses have tended to have an easier time finding work in most markets due to a chronic shortage of nurses in most markets. Recently, however, many nursing-school graduates have reported trouble finding work in Washington state and elsewhere. So does that mean demand has finally leveled off due to an adequate supply on the market?

Absolutely not, says Linda Tieman, executive director for the Washington Center for Nursing. Just the opposite, in fact. "The job market is currently tight, but the important message is that this is a temporary issue," she stresses. "The shortage of nurses is not over, and it is going to get severely worse."

The recession, Tieman says, is creating an unusually tight market as many nurses currently working in hospitals are holding on to their jobs longer and taking on extra shifts to make ends meet. Hospitals, she says, are also favoring experienced nurses for the jobs that are available, so many new nursing grads are having a tougher time. Plus, the typical nurse in Washington, who averages 48.5 years of age, is delaying retirement for as long as possible.

Soon, however, nursing demand will enter a critical phase locally and nationally as the federal health care reform bill begins to take effect. "This is going to mean another 40 million people have access to coverage," says Marla Salmon, dean of the School of Nursing at the University of Washington. "The floodgates are about to burst open."

Here are some areas where nursing demand is supposed to be highest in the next few months and years:

Pediatric care - Hospitals are already seeing an increasing need in this area, Tieman says, as millions more children are receiving access to health care under the new reform bill. Parents will also be able to name their children as dependents until age 26 and keep them on a their family policies.

Long-term care - As the population inexorably ages and the number of people 65 and above continues to increase, demand for nurses who are trained in caring for the elderly, either in nursing homes or in residences, will continue to rise. "Nursing grads don't tend to get into this area, but the growing elderly population is creating more demand," Salmon says.

Ambulatory care - Health care reform is emphasizing a shift toward the management of chronic diseases and preventive care. As a result, expect to see a rise in attendance and nursing opportunities at outpatient clinics, Salmon says.

Nursing instruction - Teaching nursing pays roughly half of the salary that most nurses can find in practice, Tieman says, so the shortage of nursing instructors is especially acute. Although nursing education capacity in the state has increased by 55 percent since 2005, Washington's nursing schools had to turn away 2,700 qualified nursing applicants due to lack of staffing last fall. And still the tide rises: Applications at UW's School of Nursing have jumped by 39 percent since last year, Salmon says.

Compared with the rest of the country, the Puget Sound region appears to be relatively well-poised to handle this expected tidal wave of demand, Salmon says. While doctors continue to find fewer opportunities to increase their salaries, nurses have seen a rise in their compensation of roughly 20 percent in the last five years. Today, she sees more students switching from pre-med to nursing rather than vice-versa.

"Our major worry, though, is that the public and Legislature will see the current flattening in the nursing market as a lack of need, but that's incorrect," Salmon adds. "Nationwide, we're still 800,000 to 1 million nurses short of what is needed. We are just pausing."

Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

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I would LOVE to become an RN. I just spent 15 months in college becoming certified as a Health Unit Coordinator. When I did my extern at NW Hospital I was amazed that the average age of the RNs was around 50. I'm 46 and if I had know this before I started training, I would have gone straight for the RN. Now, if I could get a position with a company that would reimburse tuition, they'd have a great employee and an RN in a year or so, that would be eternally loyal and grateful!

There may be a nursing shortage and we may need all those nurses, but how are you going to pay for them? If there is no money it isn't going to happen, unless they work for free or take a pretty good salary cut.

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Karen Burns Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.

Kristen Fife Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.

Lisa Quast Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.

Randy Woods Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

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Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.

Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."

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