Nursing school grads are facing a tougher time

| Monday, Sept. 26, 2011

While Patty Maloni is happy at her job, she was hoping to leave it two years ago.

Maloni, 57, a nurse of 35 years who works in the therapeutic nursery at Magee-Womens Hospital in Oakland, planned to retire at 55. But financial concerns will keep her working for the foreseeable future.

"The only good thing is I do love my job," said Maloni, of Mars. "But I do wish I could retire."

During the past 35 years, the number of nurses older than 50 more than quadrupled, and the number of nurses ages 35 to 49 doubled, according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, an independent, nongovernment organization. Older and middle-aged nurses now represent almost three-quarters of the nursing work force. The average age of registered nurses is 47.

"A large percent of nurses are women, and when their husbands get laid off or have their overtime cut, the wife can usually get back to working," said Roy Buchta, regional vice president for Interim Healthcare, a medical staffing agency with an office in Swissvale.

Laurie Cale, 59, of Adams plans to stay in the field past her target retirement age of 62 now that her husband is unemployed. He was laid off from his job as a part-time accountant two years ago.

"I can't even think about it," said Cale, a nurse in UPMC Passavant's cardiac catheter lab. "I'd like to support the lifestyle I'm accustomed to."

Even as nurses stay in the field longer, the profession continues to experience a nationwide shortage. In Pennsylvania, the Workforce Investment Board predicts a shortage of up to 19,100 by 2016.

However, nurses such as Cale and Maloni who delay retirement might leave some new graduates waiting longer for the jobs they really want.

"The reality is nurses are still getting jobs but can't be as selective as they were three or four years ago," said Jackie Dunbar-Jacobs, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing.

"Five years ago, everyone who graduated had a job by the middle of their senior year. Now, we are seeing a number that take two or three months to secure a job."

Albert Wu, 22, of Fox Chapel considers himself "really fortunate" to get a job in the ICU at UPMC St. Margaret near Aspinwall one month before graduating in April from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor's in nursing.

"Before I took the position, I really wanted to move out west," he said. "No one was willing to take a new graduate."

For some new nurses, staying in school a little longer can boost their chances of getting hired.

"Among the number of issues in the profession itself are associate degrees versus bachelor degrees," said Irv Naar, vice president of talent acquisition for West Penn Allegheny Health System. "(Bachelor's degrees) are starting to become preferred in the bottom end of the nursing profession."

Community College of Allegheny County offers an associate degree, but the school partners with California University of Pennsylvania to offer bachelor's level classes. Administrators encourage students to pursue the higher degree, said Maureen Pavlik, CCAC's acting dean of nursing.

"(Associate degrees) are appropriate for entry, but people really should look for other ways to increase their skills and become more knowledgeable," she said.

Local hospitals still are hiring at a steady rate, officials said. With UPMC East scheduled to open next summer in Monroeville, the health system needs nurses, said Lorraine Brock, director of nursing recruitment.

UPMC has about 100 vacancies posted on its hiring website at any given time, Brock said. That puts the system at a 4 percent vacancy rate -- lower than the national 5 percent average.

Louise Urban, senior vice president hospital operations and chief nursing officer at Jefferson Regional Medical Center, said the number of open positions is "fluid every week," ranging from one to 10.

Health officials attribute low vacancy rates to the many nursing schools in Western Pennsylvania. This year, Pitt had 1,200 applications for 110 seats. CCAC attracts 940 students a year.

West Penn Hospital School of Nursing has 41 students enrolled this term, lower than its typical 70. Carol Haus, interim director, attributes it to "confusion over all the changes in the system." Highmark Inc. announced plans to acquire West Penn Allegheny Health System in June.

The problem across academia is a lack of teachers, Dunbar-Jacobs said.

"We are limited on the academic side in terms of producing a large enough number of nurses. There is a shortage of quality faculty. There is no problem with people being interested. That's very high."

Naar said the need for nurses likely will become dire locally in the next decade as older nurses finally do retire.

"I'm awaiting the 10 on the Richter scale here in terms of a need for nurses," he said.

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