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25 Nov 2013

Nursing a Recession Hangover: New Nursing Graduates Are Having Problems Finding Jobs

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Desert Regional Medical Center’s Kristin Schmidt: “When times were good, nurses retired. When the recession happened, they all ended up having to go back to work to support their family." Desert Regional Medical Center’s Kristin Schmidt: “When times were good, nurses retired. When the recession happened, they all ended up having to go back to work to support their family." Courtesy of Desert Regional Medical Center

Zackary Davis always dreamed of becoming a nurse. The 26-year-old graduated from Cal State San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus in June 2012; he was the first in his family to go to college.

He estimated that he has applied to more than 100 health-care facilities since. Davis said he has had five interviews—and no job offers. Today, he works as a valet at the Hyatt Regency Indian Wells.

“I’ve basically let go of the chance of getting the ER or ICU like I want,” said Davis, who lives in Indio. “I’m sure there are a ton of stories that are just like mine. It’s cruddy, but I’m trying to stay positive about it.”

He’s not alone.

A 2011 survey by the National Student Nurses Association found that 36 percent of newly licensed registered nurses did not have jobs four months after graduation.

It’s worse in California. About 46 percent of newly licensed RNs were without jobs up to eight months after graduation, according to a recent California Institute for Nursing and Health Care survey.

The survey also found that more than 90 percent of those without a nursing job blame their lack of experience, and nearly one in four were employed in non-nursing jobs.

New grads say who you know is as important as passing the board exam.

“Honestly, I only got hired because I knew somebody,” said Candice Eckstrom, 33, who graduated from the College of the Desert’s Registered-Nurse Program in May.

She began working at an Indio rehab center in October.

“Was it my first choice?” Eckstrom said. “No, but everyone in nursing knows that you have to get experience wherever you can get it, because there are no jobs for new grads right now.”

After years of investments in building up the nursing workforce, the challenges new nursing grads face is a growing concern.

“The valley has spent a lot of money developing these students, and if they don’t get a job, they may drop out,” said Betty Baluski, assistant director of COD’s nursing program. “That’s our biggest fear—that we lose them in the future.”

The nursing shortage of 10 years ago that triggered enlistment campaigns and big signing bonuses sent students into nursing programs by the droves, with the promise of secure employment.

And then the recession hit. Nurses who might have gotten out of the workforce after having a child decided to keep working. Nurses who might have retired decided to put off retirement.

“The big thing that happened was the change in the economy,” said Wayne Boyer, COD’s director of nursing. “We’re still in the throes of that. Ten years ago, they were giving $10,000 incentive bonuses and all kinds of bells and whistles and promotions. You don’t see that any more; they just went away.”

With the aging of the U.S. population and the graying of the nursing professional—the average nurse nationwide is 46 years old—the recession has masked the demand, at least for now. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020, more than 1.2 million RNs will be needed to shore up the workforce.

“When times were good, nurses retired,” said Kristin Schmidt, assistant chief nursing officer at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs. “When the recession happened, they all ended up having to go back to work to support their families. In the next 10 years or so, we’re probably going to be hurting for a lot of nurses.”

Ann Mostofi, Eisenhower Medical Center's chief nursing officer, agreed.

“We have really had no need for new nurses coming into the workforce,” Mostofi said. “As the economy improves, what’s going to happen is we’re going to have a drastic removal of nurses from the workforce.”

Nationwide, there are more than 2.6 million nurses practicing in hospitals and other settings. California has about 392,400 working nurses, while Riverside County has 18,500, according to the state Board of Registered Nursing.

Historically, hospitals have been the largest employer of nurses and new graduates. But that is likely to change when the Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare,” is fully implemented. As more people have access to health insurance, some nursing jobs will move to clinics, rehab facilities and specialty centers, such as those for diabetes and orthopedic surgery.

“It’s challenging to get nurses to think outside a hospital setting for their first job, but I think that’s going to be what’s called for in the future,” Schmidt said.

The valley’s three hospitals—Desert Regional, Eisenhower and JFK Memorial Hospital—employ about 1,800 nurses. Hospitals typically have a 14 percent annual turnover rate, according to national statistics.

In the past three years, Eisenhower has hired 95 new grads—nearly the same amount as those with experience, Mostofi said.

With about 100 nursing students graduating each year from COD alone, the competition for local jobs can be fierce. Each of the hospitals has a nursing program designed to give hands-on training to new grads—but it’s difficult to get in to those programs. Desert Regional had more than 300 applicants for its 24 slots this fall.

Next summer, COD will sponsor a mentor program designed to help ease new graduates into the workplace.

“It might be hard to find their first job, but once they get their first job, they’re pretty golden; they’re very marketable,” Mostofi said. “I would say that even the new grads shouldn’t be too disheartened.”

Meanwhile, Davis continues his 18-month-long nursing-job search.

“I’ve always wanted to be a nurse,” Davis said. “It’s going to happen eventually.”

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