Program gets nurses in school and back to work

( Nothing like a recession and its lingering aftermath to deflate a dream.

Cutting back on hours as a medical secretary to juggle work, raise a family, and pursue her associate degree in nursing seemed like a good idea to Marianne Pecora in 2006, when her husband, a construction worker, was getting plenty of work.

But by the time she graduated in December 2011 with her two-year nursing degree, everything had changed.

The predicted shortage of nurses never materialized. All those baby-boomer nurses who were supposed to retire stayed put, their retirement savings cut by the recession.

Acute-care hospitals had their choice of nurses and those with associate degrees fresh out of nursing school need not apply. It didn’t help that the recession meant fewer jobs for Pecora’s husband.

“I panicked,” said Pecora, 42, of South Philadelphia. “I was starting to feel discouraged.”

Now Pecora works full time at Temple University Hospital as a medical-surgical nurse and is on track to pursue a four-year degree, now the preferred nursing standard.

Pecora came to Temple University through a four-year, $3 million U.S. Department of Labor grant awarded in March 2012 to the District 1199C Training and Upgrading Fund, a union-employer-funded education program focused primarily on health careers and literacy.

The grant was part of a national effort to respond to a mismatch – rising unemployment even as employers, plagued by staffing shortages in key fields, were applying for H-1B visas so they could hire laborers from abroad.

The Temple hospital was not experiencing the kind of shortage that made those visas necessary, although shortages in certain types of medical occupations exist elsewhere in the country, particularly in rural areas.

But the Labor Department’s grant was also intended to help the unemployed and underemployed, and the Philadelphia region had plenty of them, said Susan Thomas, 1199C’s industry partnership director.

In the first year, 1199C placed Pecora and 35 others with 17 regional health-care employers, including Temple. Some had associate degrees in nursing; others were licensed practical nurses and medical coders. Others were chronically unemployed, with limited education.

The grant paid 50 percent of their wages for up to six months, depending on the job, and involved extensive training and seminars. So far, Thomas said, only one of those placed has been laid off.

The goal is to put 142 people through the program, at a cost of about $21,000 per job.

“It’s a lifetime of good earnings,” Thomas said.

Karen Rafferty, director of nursing education at Temple, said the hospital benefited from the extensive training designed in part by 1199C.

“If we can nurture the nurses coming in, we will have a better chance of retaining them in their career,” Rafferty said.