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Sick Economy Means Nursing Jobs Harder To Find

After graduating with his nursing degree, Rhys Gibson applied for between 250-300 jobs. It took him five months to get a position.
Ashley Gross
After graduating with his nursing degree, Rhys Gibson applied for between 250-300 jobs. It took him five months to get a position.

Nursing degrees have long been touted as the golden tickets to immediate employment. But recent nursing graduates like Anna Lendabarker are coming into an unexpectedly tight job market.

Everyone told Lendabarker a nursing degree would give her lots of choices and let her do whatever she wanted. Now, she's discovering that's not really the case.

"I do feel a little let down at this point when searching for these jobs," she says. "You look and [you see] you need six years of experience — it's like, this is just getting kind of ridiculous."

Wait — haven't people been talking about a nursing shortagefor years?

Haven't all those English majors been kicking themselves, thinking, "Ah, I should have gone to nursing school?"

It turns out the situation is a bit more complicated.

Rhys Gibson graduated in the spring of 2009 with a nursing degree from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He didn't land a job until that December.

At a recent career workshop for graduating seniors, he described his feelings.

"I thought I was the cat's meow and everything, because I'm an African-American guy coming out of here — I was waiting for the red carpet," he says. "I had the grades, had the experience, to an extent but not the practical experience as a nurse working on the floor."

After Recession, Holding Off Retirement

Since 1998, there's been a shortage of nurses, but then came the recession — and many older nurses set to retire decided to keep working instead. And as people lost their jobs and benefits, hospital visits decreased.

"We've also seen a lot of nurses with experience who might have been working part time come back to work at a point in time when they might not ordinarily have done that because spouses lost positions," says Patricia Lewis, associate dean at the UIC College of Nursing.

So recent nursing graduates now face a double whammy — more competition for fewer jobs. And all that comes as the number of nurses graduating with bachelor's degrees has more than doubled in the past decade.

But experts say be patient.

Boomers Expected To Boost Demand For Nurses

Peter Buerhaus, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who researches the labor market for nurses, says the shortage is going to come back: Baby boomers will need more health care and the nursing workforce is aging.

"We have an estimated 900,000 nurses who are in their 50s." he says. "That is more than a third of our workforce. Many of these RNs will reach retirement age and leave the market, so we've got to keep our eyes on the longer term."

But Buerhaus admits the timing is pretty lousy for new nurses now.

Lendabarker is realizing she may not get her ideal job working on a neonatal intensive care unit.

While going to school, she's been working at a small community hospital as a nurse assistant, and she hadn't planned to try to get a permanent job there.

"Hopefully I could work there but they're slow too," she says. "So it's kind of difficult to approach anyone in management saying, 'Do you need another nurse?' when they're canceling nurses left and right for shifts."

Adjusting Expectations

UIC's Lewis says there are jobs out there — in clinics and long-term-care facilities, and outside big cities. She's confident new nurses will find work once they adjust their expectations.

"I think there's disappointment and there's anxiety," she says. "I think that we've been able to assure them that really the prospects for their future careers are very good and I do think that they believe it. They just wish it would come faster."

So if you're an 8-year-old out there considering a job in nursing, you may just hit the sweet spot of that big shortage expected by 2025.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.