Rockford College nursing student Alexandra Westen has a six-month residency in OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center’s emergency department waiting for her this summer. Westen knew for some time that she wanted to specialize in trauma and critical care and also did a summer internship in it last year. According to one of her teachers, that kind of experience a couple of years ago would have virtually assured Westen of the type of job she’ll be going to. Now she's the exception instead of the rule.
Rockford College nursing student Alexandra Westen has a six-month residency in OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center’s emergency department waiting for her this summer.
Westen, who graduates during a 2 p.m. pinning ceremony Sunday at the Coronado Performing Arts Center, knew for some time that she wanted to specialize in trauma and critical care and also did a summer internship in it last year. According to one of her teachers, that kind of experience a couple of years ago would have virtually assured Westen of the type of job she’ll be going to.
Instead, with a recession forcing hospitals to make cutbacks and current nurses to stay on the job or increase their hours as their spouses lose their jobs, the pace of job growth in health care also has taken a downturn and Westen is more the exception than the rule.
“Over the past five years, at least, there were summer programs for students who graduated,” said Rockford College assistant professor Diana Cullen, who conducts the nursing program’s senior seminar. “Those are a thing of the past. We saw a decline last year, but they still were there.”
That doesn’t mean there are no available jobs for new nurses in a field that long has seen staffing shortages. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects more than a million nursing openings through 2016.
“It’s not so much that they’ll have trouble finding jobs,” Cullen said, “as it will be finding the job that they want.”
Westen, 34, had 10 years experience in the health-care field as a coordinating manager and quality management director for Generation Plus Health Network in New York City, before beginning her nursing studies.
“I’m not your traditional student,” she said, “so, for me, getting a job was just a matter of going through the application process again.”
She said several of her classmates don’t have nursing jobs secured yet.
One of those is Judith Ferguson-Hauser, who worked for 10 years in billing for a physician before deciding on nursing as a career.
Ferguson-Hauser, 41, works as a unit coordinator at SwedishAmerican Hospital and said she will continue in that job until she finds one in nursing. She is waiting to hear about the results of her application for a nursing post at SwedishAmerican.
“When I first went into nursing, I thought my opportunities would be endless,” said Ferguson-Hauser, who wants to work in neonatal intensive care, “but, obviously, that’s not the case. There is not much out there.
“The last position I applied for had 30 applicants and there were only eight positions available.”
Barb Prochnicki, perinatal network administrator for Rockford Health System, said the current situation means hospitals are more selective in their hiring. “We don’t have as many openings, and it’s very competitive,” she said.
Lucy Rivas, director of human resources at OSF Saint Anthony, said there are still plenty of nursing positions being advertised. She checks the advertising run by other hospitals in the area “and we all have positions open.
“We still have patients to take care of and, as long as we have patients to take care of, we are going to staff our facility to deliver the level of care that they expect.”
Rivas said OSF Saint Anthony doesn’t have as many openings as in the past, but not necessarily because of the economy.
“In the last couple of years, we have brought more nurses into the organization than ever before. We have been very successful at finding nurses to fill our openings and in retaining them.”
Wealtha Helland, another assistant professor of nursing at Rockford College, said that because the job market for nurses is tighter she worries that new graduates “may come in as the low man on the totem pole as to positions that are available to them.”
Rivas said that, regardless of whether the applicant is an experienced nurse or a new graduate, “Our approach has been to bring in the right people. We like to have a healthy mix, bringing in experienced nurses but also having a well established residency program to help new graduates begin their careers.”
Cullen said several of Sunday’s graduates have positions waiting for them “but many of them have been told ‘You can submit your application, but we’re not going to look at them until May after graduation’ The hiring is tighter. They are putting off hiring, I believe, to see if the persons they are considering are going to pass board exams. That just makes sense.”
Cullen has been teaching since 1971 and has been a nurse longer than that.
“I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs,” she said, “and, during the Reagan administration we had a real crunch, too, and the situation then was so much what it is now for new graduates.
“What’s different this time is the faculty part of it all. Everybody knows that the nursing shortage is really driven by the shortage of nursing faculty and the average age of nursing faculty is up there. I mean we’re an old group and there are not a lot of people in the pipeline behind us to take over.
One of the answers to providing more faculty is Saint Anthony College of Nursing’s master’s degree program, which graduates its first class of nine on Thursday.
“The first class was full and we started the second cohort of students this past fall, and they filled that class with 15 students,” said Terese Burch, dean of the college of nursing. “About half of each class is looking at the program as an educator role and the other half as being a specialist in the service side — specialists in patient care functions.”
Burch said both classes had more applicants than the college could accommodate.
One of Thursday’s graduates is D’Anne Homer, OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center’s clinical educator in the emergency department. She will be one of the people who shepherds Westen through her internship.
“I’ve been instructing in some way, shape or form for about the past 20 years,” Homer said. “When we get new nurses, they’re kind of under my wing. I guide them through their orientation, find the classes that they’ll take, do their schedules and make sure they get their preceptors.
“I’m with them every week. We want them to get the best experience, so when they’re finished with their residency they come out as a competent nurse.”
Burch said the current job market makes this a good time to be getting more education in nursing.
“Some people are concerned about the economy,” she said, “but with health care the acuity level is going to get just as severe as it was. It has slowed down a little bit, but if people are struggling finding a job they want right now, it’s better to have the best credentials possible to be at the top of the list in the job market when the economy turns around.”
Mike DeDoncker can be reached at (815) 987-1382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.