U.S. nursing grads facing slow market for their skills

U.S. nurses are caught between a sour economy, a demographic bump and a flood of unemployed new graduates. After years of worry about a shortage of nurses, about one-third of new nursing graduates in the United States have been struggling to find work. Experts say there will be many job openings for nurses eventually.

”I’ve applied for 35 different jobs and, despite having a 4.0 GPA, I have not received any jobs, so it’s really concerning,” said University of Maryland student Alexandra Bauernschub. She is finishing a master’s degree in nursing, and learned patient care using high-tech simulators, as well as through traditional classroom activities.

She is finishing school just as new graduates are struggling to find work. Nurses with a two-year degree have more difficulty than those who graduate from four-year schools or graduate programs.

Experts say there are fewer job openings than usual right now because nurses in their 50s and 60s are putting off retirement so they can rebuild savings lost during the financial crisis, or pay the bills when a spouse loses a job.

“This economic downturn has created this tension in terms of people staying in the workforce right at the same time we have been working hard to increase the number of graduates to meet that growing health care need,” said Jane Kirschling, the dean of the University of Maryland’s nursing school.

Nursing school enrollments have soared in recent years as the medical profession prepared for the retirement of the baby boomers, the larger-than-usual generation of Americans born right after World War II.  Hundreds of thousands of nurses are expected to eventually leave the workforce, just as the rest of their generation reaches the age when they need more medical care.

Additionally, changes in health care laws give millions more Americans access to health insurance and care, which means demand for nurses will grow even more.

Health economists say if the economy improves, many older nurses will be willing to leave their jobs and make room for newcomers. One study says a drop in overall unemployment could open tens of thousands of nursing jobs.

“One percentage point in unemployment seems to lead to about 30,000 additional nurses in the workforce,” said Rand Corp. analyst David Auerbach, who spoke via Skype. “So we are at about 7.6 percent [unemployment]. So if we go down to about 5.5 percent, that suggests that about 60,000 RNs kind of opening up those spots and retiring.”

Nursing school dean Kirschling said that in spite of problems at the moment, nursing is a rewarding career with a bright future. “The opportunities are going to continue to be very, very strong. We are just sitting in this window of time where the economy has played out, the boomers staying in the workforce.”

In the meantime, many nursing students say they are worried because they face an uncertain job future, and the certainty of having to repay thousands of dollars in college loans.

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