Job market not too tight for nursing graduates

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 266 views 

When Sarah Struthers graduated from nursing school last summer, she had her pick of Licensed Practical Nurses jobs as soon as she received her certification.

“So many jobs were available,” Struthers said. “As long as I had a license in hand, they were willing to hire me that day.”

Demand for nurses out of nursing school remains high, particularly in Northwest Arkansas, even as hospitals in other locations are cutting the number of positions for new nurses, officials said. Instead, nurses are entering medical clinics, schools and nursing homes, said Lorraine Frazier, dean of the college of nurses in Little Rock.

At hospitals, the recession has cut into health care like never before, said Susan Erickson, the nursing recruiter for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. UAMS has had to tighten its belt during the recession, and that includes cutting by half the number of newly graduated nurses the hospital hires each year, Erickson said.

At Mercy Health System NWA, among the 44 new nurse hires last year, only 10 were newly graduated, according to an email from Candy Alfano, director of nursing. Despite earlier nationwide calls forecasting a statewide nursing shortage, Northwest Arkansas has no shortage, Alfano said.

At Sparks Health System, which recently expanded in Fort Smith, Chief Nursing Executive Cindy Slaydon said the hospital’s need for new nurses will “diminish.”

Between July 1, 2010 and June 30, 2011, a total of 2,671 RNs and PNs passed state exams to become nurses, according to the state nursing board’s 2011 annual report.

During the same time period, the board reported that, in all nursing categories, about 51,000 people were licensed as nurses in Arkansas. The state workforce department estimates the hospital industry will employ about 53,200 people by 2018. Another 28,728 positions are listed for nursing and residential care facilities under the same projection.

Older nurses are putting off retirement or taking on extra shifts after their husbands or wives are laid off, hospital officials said. And, hospitals are pushing to have more educated nurses on staff — that means doing away with LPN-certified nurses, like Struthers, on certain floors or in hospitals altogether, nurses said.

Essentially, the number of jobs in the nursing industry is down, said Sue Tedford, executive director of the Arkansas State Board of Nursing.

“There’s just not as many jobs,” she said.

Neither the state hospital association nor the nursing board track the number of nursing graduates and how many remained unemployed after graduating, administrators said. Eckerson said she thought about 15% of Arkansas’ new nurses had to find work out of state even before the recession. According to the University of Arkansas, about 75%of the nurses the school graduates stay in Arkansas.

Paul Cunningham, executive vice president of the Arkansas Hospital Association said there are no hard data, but anecdotally, he knew of newly graduated nurses who had trouble finding a job.

Yet, many officials said nursing opportunities are increasing, in part, because the area continues to grow and because Arkansas has an aging population with more health care needs. Registered nurse positions are expected to see a net growth of about 37% in Northwest Arkansas by 2018, according to the state workforce services department.

But Frazier and others said the recession put a temporary lull on any nursing shortage. For some nurses — and particularly in more urban locations — landing a prime-nursing job is getting tougher, officials said.

“We’ve seen some decline in hospital (jobs) but not in long-term health care,” said Ester Leonard, a nursing instructor at Arkansas Tech University’s Ozark campus. “Although it is declining in some hospitals, overall it is increasing.”

Among LPN nurses who graduated from ATU-Ozark this past fall, 100% of those surveyed were employed within 6 months of graduating. About 90% landed jobs in their field of study, spokesman Charlie Gocio wrote in email.

“LPNs and RNs are still an occupation that is still in demand in Arkansas. I know we’re not having difficulty placing students,” said Bruce Sikes, chief academic officer at the ATU-Ozark campus.

At the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, about 78% of graduating students prior to May 5 this year reported they had a job. The remaining percentage was waiting to hear of an offer or was not actively looking for work, according to an email from Carolyn Mosley, dean of the College of Health Sciences.

Although UA-Fayetteville did not track how many graduates found work, Nan Smith-Blair, director of the Eleanor Mann School of Nursing, said most student nurses had jobs lined up before they graduated.

While the job market is getting tighter, demand for nursing schools appears up.

UAMS keeps a waiting list for classes that is about 1,500 names long. The UA-Fayetteville nursing school recently doubled the number of students it accepts for its four-year nursing degree program. By spring 2013, the first class of 100 students will graduate from UA.

ATU-Ozark is also expanding. This August the school will offer LPNs a transitional program to become RNs, said Sikes.

While Northwest Arkansas has been spared hiring freezes and staff reductions, more nurses from out of state are in the area looking for work, hospital officials said.

Out-of-state nurses applied in droves to Washington Regional this year because the job market is more limited, said Jim Bass, director of cardiology at the Fayetteville hospital. More Arkansas nurses also applied for jobs, looking to relocate in state, said Beverly Winney, assistant chief nursing officer at the hospital.

“The demand for new graduates (statewide) is fluctuating and it has fluctuated for the last two years,” Winney said.

At Washington Regional nursing positions are filled more readily than they were before the recession. And, fewer people are changing jobs, Winney and Bass said.

“People are afraid to give up a good job they have right now,” Bass said. “The ones who quit and go up the street (to another hospital), that’s not happening.”

In Little Rock, Carrie Gharapour graduated from nursing school in December and entered a program at St. Vincent Infirmary Medical Center by the end of January. Everyone she knows who passed the state board test is working.

“I can’t think of a single person who’s unemployed,” Gharapour said. “You can open the paper and still find job opportunities. There’s always going to be a need for medical care.”

New nurses might not be working the shift they wanted or on the floor of the hospital they wanted, but “they are still working,” Gharapour said.

Struthers agreed, especially for Northwest Arkansas’ job market. Larger cities might see more competition among nurses, she said, but in Northwest Arkansas, it’s not hard to find work as a nurse.

“The job market is good — if you are willing to bust your butt,” Struthers said.