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Recession alleviates shortage of nurses in Pittsburgh and across the nation

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By Allison M. Heinrichs
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gaylene Samples planned to retire from nursing last year.

"But then my husband passed away in October and, at that point, I was grateful to have my job because it was a lifeline for me," said Samples, 68, of White Oak, a registered nurse at UPMC Shadyside. "And then came the economy, and I lost so much money in my 401(k) and my other investments, that I really could not afford to retire."

Many nurses are delaying retirement or returning to the work force because of the recession. Others are turning from unrelated careers to nursing because of the job stability the profession offers. The trend has eased the nursing shortage that began a decade ago and was forecast to continue for another decade.

"In 2007 and 2008, there was an increase of (registered nurse) employment of 243,000," said Peter Buerhaus, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "Going back in our data set to the early 1970s, there is no two-year increase in employment that comes remotely close to this."

Of those 243,000 nurses joining the work force, half were older than 50, said Buerhaus, who recently published a report analyzing the recession-driven surge in nurses.

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center implemented at least two programs to accommodate returning and older nurses, said Holly Lorenz, chief nursing officer.

One program helps returning nurses by recognizing that they already have bedside experience but need to learn new technologies.

Another program, called UPMC Life Stages, lets retirement-age nurses cut their hours from 40 per week to 32 and lessens the amount of bedside care they provide to cut down on strenuous work.

"Why shouldn't we focus some of our initiatives on that person who has been someone we've relied on for 30 years?" Lorenz said. "They have this knowledge base that we don't want to lose and that they can share with others."

The number of applicants to West Penn Hospital's School of Nursing increased 16 percent this year to 394 people. Anecdotal evidence shows that the boost comes from higher unemployment rates, said Nancy Cobb, director of the School of Nursing.

"We interview every potential applicant that meets our criteria and, for example, my recruiter said that one applicant, a male, indicated that (he) had lost two jobs in the last year," said Cobb, herself a registered nurse. "Another applicant, he said that he had been in sales but the sales are drying up."

Before the recession, Buerhaus predicted a national nursing shortage of 500,000 by 2025. Based on numbers in his new report, he forecasts the shortage will be 260,000 by 2025.

Lorenz said UPMC is wary of a shortage but said the forecast for Western Pennsylvania is more favorable than the rest of the country.

"Pittsburgh is clearly more stable," she said. "We've actually had people that are graduating from some of the Eastern schools of nursing that are applying here. ... We also have a lot of schools of nursing here turning out graduates. As much as we'll still have some positions that we're recruiting for, the group that we're able to pull from has actually gotten larger."

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