Despite projected demand for nurses, jobs hard to find

(Post Bulletin) There has been a steady steam of reports predicting a dearth of nurses in the coming years. One recent forecast from The American College of Medical Quality projects a national shortage of 300,000 to 1 million nurses in 2020.

So when Marc Anders decided to switch careers from bartending to nursing, he thought he would have it made.

“There was a perception that you could go into the job and kind of call your shots,” said Anders, 42. “I could go in, pick my hours, see how many days I want to work, get benefits, not work weekends and go where I wanted to go.”

Anders partly based that view on the experience of his sister-in-law, who was offered big hiring bonuses, along with multiple job offers, when she graduated from nursing school about a decade ago.

But as Anders started a two-year nursing program at Minneapolis Community & Technical College in 2008, he began hearing that hospitals were tapering off hiring and that landing a job could be tough.

“I just knew it was going to take more time,” he said.

Anders did get a job out of nursing school, but was laid off when the employer shut down, around the time of his second child’s birth last October.

Now Anders is largely a stay-at-home dad. But he works part-time at a long-term care facility, making $25 an hour. Such jobs are often considered stepping stones to higher paying hospital jobs.

He hopes that after a year he’ll qualify for one of those hospital jobs, which typically require more experience.

Until then, Anders and his wife, Dana DeMaster, will have to get by mostly on her salary as a research analyst for the state Department of Human Services. But with two young children and a mortgage on their St. Paul home, they’re not able to get ahead financially.

DeMaster, 34, said she’s tired of explaining to friends that the nursing shortages they’ve heard about are not today’s reality.

“You go places out with people, and they’re like, ‘Oh! Marc doesn’t have a full-time job yet? I thought there was really demand,’ ” she said. “Or, ‘What do you mean? Shouldn’t there be tons of jobs out there?'”

She frequently has to answer that nursing jobs are no longer easy to come by.

About 10 years ago, Minnesota did have a nursing shortage, said Oriane Casale, a labor market analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The job vacancy rate for registered nurse positions then was frequently twice as high as the rest of the job market.

In 2002, the job vacancy rate for registered nurses climbed as high as about 7 percent. That meant that for every 100 jobs in the field, there were nearly seven openings.

But in the last few years, demand has softened. As the recession hit, people used health care less, prompting hospitals to hire fewer new nurses. Some nurses delayed retirement, which meant fewer positions coming open. Meanwhile, schools kept churning out new nurses.

“There are lots of jobs, but there are also a lot of graduates,” Casale said.

By the end of last year, for every 100 RN’s with jobs, there were only about two openings. That’s no better than the average job vacancy rate for Minnesota’s overall labor market.

At this point, Casale said, the market for nurses is basically in equilibrium.

“It definitely seems like supply has caught up with demand,” she said.

However, jobs are a lot easier to come by for nurses who have bypassed two-year programs and instead completed four-year bachelor’s degrees. There are also jobs for specialty nurses, said Valerie Defor of HealthForce Minnesota, a collaboration between educational institutions and the health care industry.

“There’s an easing of what had been a fairly ingrained nursing shortage,” said Defor, the group’s director of statewide health care education industry partnerships. “But we’ve also heard there are still needs by region, by care setting, by degree.”

She also said nurses might have better luck if they’re willing to work outside the Twin Cities.

Defor and other education officials expect that retirements among older nurses will boost hiring in coming years. The federal health care overhaul will also likely send millions more patients into the health care system, a potential boon for nursing jobs.

Marc Anders is trying to stay optimistic about those his job prospects.

“That demand isn’t going to go away,” he said. “People aren’t going to stop being sick.”

His wife agrees. But she regrets thinking that her husband’s nursing degree would save him from a difficult job hunt in a sluggish economy.

“In the short run if you’re unemployed and need to pay the bills, don’t think that you are going to go to a two-year nursing program and come out and have the answer,” she said.