Staffs full, nurses struggle for work

Recession hits a once-sure thing

When Katharine Barron enrolled in Boston College's school of nursing in 2005, everyone - family, friends, college officials - assured her hospitals would be "banging down her door" with job offers.

Because nurses were in such high demand, they said, Barron's degree was going to be like a guaranteed paycheck. Or so she thought.

Turns out Barron will be lucky to land work in Boston after she graduates later this year. The 22-year-old Newton native will be saddled with more than $100,000 in student loans and anticipates moving back to her parents' home.

"I really hope I can get a job," she said during a break from class Thursday. "It's frustrating. And it's scary to think about the future."

Because of the recession, nursing jobs are scarce for the first time in years. In Massachusetts, vacancy rates on nursing staffs have fallen to 4 percent this year, down from 5 percent in 2007, and 10 percent in 2002, when there were the most openings, according to the Massachusetts Hospital Association. As a result, many nursing students on the cusp of graduation are scrambling to find employment.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, the nursing vacancy rate is under 2 percent, grinding most hiring to a halt, said Steven Taranto, human resources director. The hospital, which has about 4,000 full- and part-time nurses, recently canceled a critical-care training program for new nurses, he said. And for the first time in memory, Taranto said, there are no nurse openings in the emergency department.

"I've worked at Mass. General for 12 years and this is the lowest vacancy [rate] I've ever had," he said.

There are 78 nurse openings posted on the hospital's website, but most require highly specialized skills or considerable experience, he said.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center recently said it will lay off more than 100 employees, including nurses, and officials at two Boston nursing schools said opportunities for new nurses are nearly nonexistent at Children's Hospital.

There are two major reasons for the lack of new jobs. First, most hospitals are treating fewer patients as people put off costly elective surgery. At the same time, many experienced part-time nurses are looking for more hours, while others are coming out of retirement because a spouse was laid off.

"This steep recession has placed an unusual economic burden on a lot of households and it's driving many nurses back to the labor market," said Peter Buerhaus, a professor at Vanderbilt University who has written extensively about the nation's nursing shortage.

It is a situation nurses have not faced in a long time. For most of the last decade, nursing shortages were the rule. Hospitals frequently offered $5,000 to $10,000 sign-on bonuses, and many promised cars or generous vacation packages to attract nurses just out of school. At the same time, Buerhaus said, nursing programs at colleges proliferated to help fill the void.

In recent years, several area nursing programs have been created to train people seeking to enter the profession from other careers. Many also offer master's degree programs to help increase the number of nursing instructors. The shortage of instructors was once so severe that programs could not train nursing faculty and expand class sizes fast enough to meet demand.

Katherine McDonough, clinical care instructor at Northeastern University's nursing school, said she is advising students for the first time to network instead of simply applying for jobs online.

"It breaks my heart for them, but we go through cycles like this, and we will cycle back again," she said.

Others are less sympathetic, noting that there are still open jobs for community nurses at nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and visiting nurse groups, though there are fewer of those, too, and they pay less.

Susan Hassmiller, a senior adviser for nursing at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a private foundation that has extensively researched the nursing shortage, said many nurses could use the downturn to gain experience in the growing field of home healthcare, which is expected to explode as baby boomers age.

Many nurses will shun those jobs, she said, because the pay is lower and they offer less excitement and prestige.

"New grads always want to go to the hospitals first, and you can get paid a lot more in hospitals than a community setting," Hassmiller said. But "this blip . . . may not be such a bad thing," she added.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation did not predict the downturn and the current nursing job shortage. Just four years ago, it urged Congress and states "to act quickly to avert the crisis in patient care" and find ways to train more nurses.

Buerhaus said the glut is temporary and that research shows an overall nursing shortage nationwide through 2020. His advice to would-be nurses: "Keep your focus on the long run."

That does not console Michelle Jones, 22, who is graduating from Boston College's nursing school this year. An intern nurse at Mass. General, she planned to ease into a full-time job at the hospital after graduation.

But a professor recently told her to look elsewhere for work because there are no openings at the hospital, and some of her mentors have suggested she search for a position outside Massachusetts.

Jones said she grew up in Roxbury, where her family and fiance live, and does not want to move.

"It kind of stinks," she said. "Even now people say, 'Oh, that's great, nurses always have good jobs.' I have to tell them that it's not like that anymore."

Alexandra Wilder, 27, said she grew scared when she sent out 70 job applications in December and heard back from just three prospective employers.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in 2003 she worked as a paramedic and later decided to go to nursing school. She eventually borrowed $60,000 to earn a master's degree in nursing. Earlier this month, she landed a job a half-hour from her home in Boston at MetroWest Medical Center in Natick. It was not what she expected originally, but she is thrilled. Combined with her husband's income, they will be able to meet their financial obligations.

"A lot of my friends don't have spouses that work and they took out loans to go to nursing school," Wilder said. "Now they're really scraping."

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at