Nurses without jobs: A sign of the times

Amber Tench did her homework before deciding to enter a two-year nursing program last year. She talked with nurses, met with career counselors and searched the Internet.

Then she took the leap.

“I’ve always wanted to do something to help other people, but I also had to be practical,” said Tench, who graduated from Habersham County High School in northeast Georgia in 2011 and attends nearby North Georgia Technical College.

“Everyone hears about the tangible benefits of going into nursing nowadays, from other nursing students, from schools. It pays well, and people will always require health care, so there will always be a need for nurses,” said Tench.

It’s true that the need for nurses will never disappear, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that 711,900 new nursing jobs will be created by 2020.

But in the current economy, the job prospects for a nurse are surprisingly uncertain.

For years, the profession suffered from labor shortages, and a nursing degree was considered a sure ticket to a job. Now many new graduates struggle to find work.

More than one-third of newly licensed RNs graduating in 2011 had not found employment four months after graduation, according to a September 2011 survey of more than 3,700 new RN grads by the National Student Nurses Association.

Eighty percent of the grads said employers were hiring only RNs with at least two years of experience; 70 percent said the market was flooded with new graduates like themselves; 45 percent encountered hiring freezes; and 20 percent said that even previously employed RNs were being laid off.

“I’ve seen so many television ads sponsored by nursing schools, and I’ve listened to several recruiters from local and state schools, and they all really focus on the need for new graduates,” Tench said.

Today, unemployed nurses – with and without experience – are sharing their frustrations by joining, a social media site for nurses. New graduates dominate the site’s opening page. A sampling of four posts from the site shows the level of worry, even desperation:

“I can’t get a job. I have a degree and I have a license and I have many loans and bills that are due.”

“I’m working at a retail store in the mall.”

“Out of the seemingly hundreds of applications I’ve put in, I’ve had only two interviews, neither of which worked out. At this point, I’m feeling pretty hopeless and really just need a job.”

“Help!!! I’ve tried hospitals, nursing homes, and doctors’ offices. I’ve stayed up all night crying about this for months, and I feel like by the time I do finally get a job I’ll practically [have forgotten] everything I’ve learned!”

The weak economy is the main reason for the disconnect between expectations and reality, says David Auerbach, a health economist at RAND Corporation. Many hospitals need more nurses but can’t afford to pay them. Retirement-age nurses are staying on as long as they can because they need the pay. And many nurses who used to take a hiatus in their 30s to raise children are no longer doing so because their spouses have lost jobs.

The situation is not completely hopeless, though, says Peter Buerhaus, an RN and health economist at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. As the economy gets better, he says, there will again be a nursing shortage, and hiring will resume.

While studying to be a nurse at NGTC, Tench works at a supermarket, a job that helps her pay the bills that go with a college education.

And a job as a nurse, she hopes, will help cover any bills that are left over after graduation.

Alyssa Sellers is a graduate student at the University of Georgia. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication with a concentration in telecommunications.