Changing population is opening doors to nursing

| Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

When Caroline Homulka graduates from Penn State University in May with a nursing degree, her odds of landing a job are very bright despite a tough job market.

Homulka, a Blue & White Scholarship winner at Penn State's Fayette campus, will enter the field at a time when the demand for nurses is growing, fueled by the aging of 76 million baby boomers and the graying of registered nurses.

“I've always wanted to work in a career where I can help people,” said Homulka, 19, of Norvelt, who was “shopping” Thursday at a career fair held in Greensburg by Excela Health.

The number of nurses that will be needed to keep up with patient care for the aging population is striking — and projected to grow at a faster rate than any other medical profession. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of registered nurses will increase nationwide by 711,000 to 3.4 million in 2020 from 2.7 million in 2010.

The rosy outlook for the field during the next decade has fueled an increase in applications to nursing programs, attracting everyone from young adults contemplating their futures to unemployed workers looking to switch careers because of the difficulty in finding jobs in the struggling economy.

Enrollment in nursing programs nationwide has jumped by 44,567, or 21 percent, to 259,100 in the past three years, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, a Washington-based group that represents 690 nursing schools across the country.

Nursing schools in Western Pennsylvania are feeling the boom, which is threatening to strain their teaching capacity. The schools graduate more than 1,000 nurses a year. But many of the programs are seeing their admission and graduation rates climb because of the outlook for job growth in the field.

“We're getting pretty close to max,” said Lynda Davidson, dean of school of nursing at Robert Morris University. The school has just admitted its second-largest freshman class — about 90 nursing students — pushing enrollment to 546.

Meanwhile, enrollment at the Duquesne University school of nursing has remained at capacity — 750 students — for two years, said its dean, Mary Ellen Glasgow. And Waynesburg University, which has 137 nursing students, is experiencing greater interest in the nursing program on its recruiting days, said Nancy R. Mosser, chair and a professor of the department of nursing.

More than 75,000 qualified nursing school candidates, including 3,000 in Pennsylvania, were turned away in 2011 because the nation's schools did not have the faculty or space to teach them or because of budget constraints, according to the American Association of Colleges.

And that's no consolation with a potential crisis looming in patient care as the medical needs of baby boomers outstrip growth in the nursing field. Baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — are increasing the size of the state's aging population and the demands on its health-care system. Pennsylvania's population of 65 and over is expected to grow from 1.9 million in 2010 to 2.4 million in 2020 and 2.89 million by 2030, the state Department of Aging said.

Already there is a shortage of nurses nationwide. In Pennsylvania alone, the number is between 5,000 and 7,000 nurse positions — mainly in rural areas, according to the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association, which represents the state's 209,000 registered nurses.

UPMC, the region's largest health care provider, has a higher number of open nursing positions at facilities in Bedford and other rural areas, said Holly Lorenz, its chief nurse executive. UPMC added more than 1,500 new nurses last year to its roster of 12,000 nurses. The number of vacant positions wasn't immediately available.

Excela Health, which includes three hospitals in Westmoreland County, added 76 nurses during the past 12 months bringing its total to 1,242, said Jody Hirst, a manager of human resources there. Hirst declined to provide numbers on open positions.

“Nursing is one of the top positions we're trying to fill,” said Jenny Brown, a nurse recruiter at Excela who often pitches the profession to kids as young as elementary school age in hopes of fostering interest in the nursing field.

Besides trying to get students interested in the field at an early age, hospitals have resorted to other creative ways and perks to recruit nurses to fill open positions and meet the growing demand. These include tuition reimbursements, managerial development courses and more flexibility on work schedules.

“We're very fortunate to have a low vacancy rate but are aware of the maturing of our nursing staff,” said Jeanne Graff vice president of patient services at Armstrong County Memorial Hospital. “We keep a close eye on that.”

Nursing can be a challenging career, UPMC's Lorenz said. The turnover rate nationally is 14 percent and a lot of nurses leave in the first six months or a year.

“Bedside nursing is physically and emotionally demanding,” said Lorenz, who has been a nurse for 30 years.

But students such as Hayley Fornoff, 21, of Kennett Square, are looking forward to a career they expect will change drastically during the next two decades.

“The way health care is going, a lot of this will be ... on preparing people to stay out of the hospital,” said Fornoff, who will graduate in May from the nursing program at Duquesne University optimistic about finding a job.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

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