Once a Secure Career Path in a Resilient Industry, Nursing Jobs are Hard to Come By

Annalyn Kurtz is reporting at CNNMoney that thousands of recently licensed registered nurses are currently unable to find work. This is alarming because it questions two common assumptions about employment and the recession. First, health care generally enjoys a reputation as being a good field to enter even during a bad job market. Secondly, everyone wants to believe that avoiding unemployment is easy, if we just get the right degree.

From the outside, graduate registered nurses should be set in terms of job security. They are among the most highly trained new workers. They must complete college coursework and pass a state licensure exam. And as part of their training, students studying to be registered nurses must also gain clinical experience working alongside practicing registered nurses.

But Kurtz reports that about 43% of newly licensed RNs do not have jobs 18 months after graduation.

According to the experts Kurtz interviewed for the article, healthcare remains a solid employment sector, but the recession is disrupting the natural ebb and flow of people entering and leaving the profession. This disruption means that nurses who might take time off to raise a family or who would normally retire in their 50s are staying in the workforce longer, in part due to spouses who may be unemployed. As a result, there are fewer positions becoming available for new grads.

Kurtz lays it out this way:

The recession is to blame, says Peter Buerhaus, a registered nurse and economist who teaches at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. In a paper he co-authored in the New England Journal of Medicine last year, he shows [that]: About 90% of nurses are women, 60% are married, and roughly a quarter are over 50 years old...But when the recession hit, spouses lost jobs, 401(k)s lost money, and facing financial uncertainty, fewer nurses chose to leave work...At the same time, enrollment in nursing colleges has exploded in recent years. In the 2010-2011 school year, 169,000 people were enrolled in entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs. That's more than double the 78,000 students from a decade earlier...

Another expert interviewed by Kurtz is Annah Karam. Karam heads recruiting for the Daughters of Charity Health System in Los Angeles. Each of the 6 hospitals Karam works with aims to hire a minimum of 10 new nursing grads a year. Competition is intense however, with Karam reporting the organization "receives more than 1,000 applications" for each of these positions.

The American Society of Registered Nurses (ASRN), which has been voicing its concerns about student debt for many years, makes an excellent point that ties this unexpected employment crisis to its impact on the financial future of those entering the field.

Based on a survey it conducted way back in 2008, the organization reported that:

Nursing school graduates are now facing mounting debt and rising unemployment...Nurses now report that average debt for those who graduated with loans in 2008 rose to $23,200...up from $18,650 in 2004. Roughly two-thirds of nursing students graduate with student loans, government surveys show. The change in nursing student loan bankruptcy law under the Bush era and rising debt exacerbated by the recession create a systemic trap in the way our higher education system is financed.

ASRN has commented regularly on the student loan issue, asking provocative questions like "Who is Making a Killing Off Student Loans?" and pointedly writing about "The Student Loan Crisis Everyone Saw Coming." 

The situation of nursing graduates underscores the fact that few careers are immune to economic insecurity and that investing in higher education is not a 100% guarantee of a job. All the more reason to ensure that higher education is as affordable as possible, and that the student loan system is as efficient and consumer-friendly as it can be.