The recession has finally caught up to nursing, the so-called "recession-proof" job. But experts say the demand for nurses won't be slowed for long.
Evidence of the now-lagging nursing job market is anecdotal and inconsistent; no definitive figures exist. But Betty Sue McGarvey, president of the Baptist College of Health Sciences in Memphis, Tenn., doesn't need a thermometer to know it's cold outside.
Most of her nursing students used to have job offers even before they graduated. Finding employment now can take months.
"We encourage our students and tell them the stability is still there, but it may take you longer to find that first position you want," McGarvey said.
The job-market cool-down follows a frenzied surge in 2007-2008 in which hospitals alone added an estimated 243,000 nurses, according to researchers from Vanderbilt University, the Congressional Budget Office and Dartmouth College. The spike was the largest two-year increase in nursing jobs over the prior 30 years.
But the recession slowly ate away the health-care industry's past insulation.
"In previous recessions, nursing always managed to ride out of the economic storm with little damage," said University of Memphis health care economist Cyril Chang. "But this time, the length and depth of the recession are so severe that even nursing has not been immune to consequences of the economic downturn."
Many in the health care industry tightened their belts and either laid nurses off or reduced their hours, Chang said.
There are always exceptions. The Memphis VA Medical Center, for example, is in the process of hiring 70 nurses. The Veterans Administration's nurse-to-patient ratio changed, said Marilyn Kerkhoff, the hospital's director of nursing. The thinking, she said, is that more nurses on staff translates into better patient outcomes.
"At a time when many are letting go of nurses, we're ... doing what we feel is the right thing for the patients," Kerkhoff said.
A job fair for registered nurses attracted 90 applicants to the VA two weeks ago. Nineteen were hired.
Experts say the current slowdown won't be a long-term, prevailing trend.
Vanderbilt's Peter Buerhaus, a national expert on nursing employment, predicts a national shortage of 260,000 nurses by 2025 -- primarily because the enormous baby boom generation will need more care as it enters old age. More nurses will also be needed to treat the 32 million Americans insured in 2014 under the health reform law.
Buerhaus found that nurses over age 50 filled more than three-fourths of new nursing jobs created between 2001 and 2008.
"If the economy improves, we're expecting ... a great exit of seasoned nurses who have either put off retirement or have reduced their hours," said Sandra Hugueley, chief nursing officer at Methodist Extended Care Hospital.
That would bring an even bigger nursing shortage.
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the American Nurses Association, the American Organization of Nurse Executives and the National League for Nursing recently issued a statement expressing their concern.
"Diminishing the pipeline of future nurses may put the health of many Americans at risk, particularly those from rural and underserved communities, and leave our health care delivery system unprepared to meet the demand for essential nursing services," the statement said.
(Contact Toby Sells at sells(at)commercialappeal.com.)