Mon February 18, 2013

A Job Market Catch-22 For Newly Graduated Registered Nurses: You Need Experience

Three years ago, Sara Chapman left a career in mechanical engineering to follow her heart.

Nursing was not only her passion, it seemed like a smart move: There was a nursing shortage.

The average salary for a registered nurse is $62,000. Perhaps if she went back to school, she thought, her dream job would be waiting for her.

Chapman was sorely disappointed.

In the six months since she received her degree as a registered nurse, her career path has become a frustrating road of endless unreturned emails, one-way phone calls, and career fairs where she couldn’t get past the lobby.

“You walk into the room,” she says. “There are two people at the door and you sign in, and they ask you a couple of questions like, ‘How much experience do you have?’ When that happened, I just left, cried and called my mother.”

Sara Chapman with her diploma
Credit Stephen Swofford / Colorado Public News

Despite the nursing shortage, Chapman, 29, has no immediate prospects of working in health care in Colorado. To pay the bills, she is working at a bath store, earning $9.50 an hour.

Many new Colorado nursing graduates have similar stories. They started nursing school because they were told there would be jobs. And there are, but not many for inexperienced nurses. Colorado Public News found 752 openings advertised statewide among six employers. But only four of those jobs were open to new graduates.

Recruiter Dee Cook of S.O.S. Healthcare Staffing says she hates having to turn away the new graduates. But, she says, “hospitals want experience. It’s a huge liability kind of industry and you have to know what you’re doing.”

Karren Kowalski, CEO of the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence, said another reason is the $60,000 to $90,000 it costs to teach new nurses a particular hospital or clinic system.

Some hospital groups offer paid nursing residencies. But the competition is fierce. Children’s Hospital, for example, gets 500 applications a year for 44 slots.

The federal NURSE Corps helps pay student loans for nurses who will work in shortage-plagued rural areas and low-income clinics – but the program also has a glut of applicants.

Just a few years ago, experts said nursing was the fastest-growing field and foretold a severe shortage of RNs to care for an aging population.

Nursing schools listened. Nationally, nursing B.A degrees doubled in 10 years, from 73,000 to 161,000. However, in a down economy, many older nurses postponed their own retirement.

Nursing college faculty are painfully aware that new graduates are now hurting for jobs. “We’re talking to them about the strategies and what to do when they don’t get their dream job right away,” said Sara Thompson, dean of the University of Colorado College of Nursing.

The CU nursing dean says some of her 240 graduates a year expect to walk straight into an exciting top job, like the ones they saw on the television shows ER and Grey’s Anatomy.

“They have to be willing to work in other settings which are not as glamorous,” the dean said. She tells students to start out in a rural area, or to try working in long-term care.

However, recruiter Cook says hospitals do not consider long-term care as the type of experience they need.

Cook believes some nursing schools are not being honest with their students when they sign up. “I always ask them, ‘What did your school tell you? How did they help you when you hit graduation? Will they help you get placed?’”

Nationally, nursing B.A degrees doubled in 10 years, from 73,000 to 161,000

Despite the troubles, Thompson predicts the nursing shortage will return soon, when the older generation of nurses finally retire, and because the health care law will result in new patients beginning January of next year.

In fact, 37 percent of nurses in Colorado are 55 or older, with 9 percent over 65, according to the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence.

The group’s CEO, Kowalski, said that after 30 years in the field, she’s seen this cycle happen over and over. “I would tell new nurses to hang in there, but find any kind of job in health care.” Kowalski predicts that once the cliff occurs, Colorado will need 1,500 new nurses a year.

But that’s still fewer than the 1,800 that CU says are graduating. So for now, new nurses are caught in an avalanche of “No’s.”

Sara Chapman says she’s being realistic and giving up on Colorado. “It’s been six months. If I took it to heart, I’d drive myself insane.”

She’s just heard from a new 18-bed hospital in Nome, Alaska ready to hire a determined young nurse who’s willing to move to an Arctic town so remote she’ll have to ship her car there by barge. Chapman hopes heading north will be her own personal gold rush.