Into The Pipeline Colleges Are Graduating More Nurses, But Still Look To Increase Capacity

For several years, the complaint in the nursing world has been a shortage of nurses entering the field.That hasn’t changed, nationally or in Massachusetts, but now another cry has become just as loud — specifically, that there are not enough opportunities available for women and men who want to turn to nursing.

Area colleges are doing their part to keep up, adding programs and as much capacity as they can in nursing departments, and graduating more students every year. And yet the nursing crunch remains, as those graduates are having no trouble at all finding jobs.

“We graduated 61 this year, and all are employed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and one in Rhode Island, in everything from critical care to medical-surgical to maternity to pediatrics to long-term care,” said Mary Tarbell, who chairs the Nursing Department at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC).

“There are more nursing positions than there are new graduates to fill them,” she added. “Our students all had jobs six months before they graduated.”

That’s a story being repeated at nursing programs throughout the area — as the crunch shows no signs of loosening up in the near future.

Answering the Need

Part of the concern over a lack of nurses, of course, stems from a pair of interconnected trends. One is the rapid aging of America, with Baby Boomers heading into their retirement years. People are living longer in general, and living with chronic conditions that might have been fatal decades ago — and they are exerting a greater demand for health care services.
At the same time, the average age of registered nurses nationwide right now is about 43, with many longtime nurses preparing to retire. The challenge has been to create interest in nursing with younger people, and that effort has been successful to some degree, with the easy availability of jobs — during an economic period which has been sluggish in many sectors — becoming a major selling point.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, enrollments in entry-level baccalaureate programs in nursing increased by 15.9{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} last fall, continuing a three-year upward trend, and show no signs of slowing down this fall.

Unfortunately, the renewed interest in nursing has caught colleges off guard, and they are aggressively adding capacity wherever they can. STCC is one example, adding a late-afternoon track to go along with its morning option, opening the door to 34 more students each semester in its associate’s degree program.

“It allows for a different time of day to help meet the demands of their personal lives. Some need to work along with going to school,” Tarbell said. For the coming fall, “we’ve had several hundred applications for 108 seats,” she added. “I could fill the program seven times over.”

Beth Fiscella, director of Nursing at Holyoke Community College (HCC), said the school gets about five qualified applicants for every available seat, and is looking to start an evening program in the fall. HCC graduated 45 nurses from its associate’s degree program in the spring, and all found jobs well ahead of the summer.

“Most of them stayed locally at places like Holyoke Medical Center and Baystate Medical Center,” Fiscella said. “We had a couple going to Connecticut and one as far away as Hawaii. They were often recruited into internships as an enticement to stay on after graduation.”

Elms College has also expanded capacity, doubling the enrollment in its bachelor’s degree nursing program last fall to about 50 students per class. And this spring’s graduates were aggressively recruited by employers from around the Pioneer Valley, Hartford County, and the New Haven area, said Kathleen Scoble, director of the Nursing Department.

“All but one graduate had accepted a nursing position and had an established starting date before commencement,” she said. “The one student who did not have a job had chosen not to begin interviewing until after graduation.”

American International College, another school with a bachelor’s degree program in Nursing, produced 22 new nurses this spring, all of whom have jobs.

Relief Coming

These local success stories are a start, but the nursing crunch remains an ominously looming issue.

“It is clear that the looming shortage of nurses presents a real threat to our nation’s health,” said Mary Foley, president of the American Nurses Association, citing projections that suggest the current supply of RNs will not meet the demand for nursing services by 2010. Many colleges clearly recognize the need as much as health care providers do.

Scoble said the challenge at Elms goes beyond merely attracting students into the field; more important is accommodating prospective nurses. That involves competing more aggressively in the academic and service markets for qualified faculty, increasing classroom and skills lab space, increasing clinical affiliations and access to clinical instruction, and maintaining a comprehensive, up-to-date curriculum that addresses the rapid changes in modern medicine and the business of health care.

Indeed, a shortage of nurse educators is becoming as much of a problem as a shortage of nurses, Scoble said, as large numbers of faculty are preparing to retire, and fewer nurses with advanced preparation are choosing academic careers. For nurses with master’s or higher degrees, working in many health care organizations or in private practice simply provides better salaries.

If those academic needs can be met, college enrollment trends provide evidence that more nurses are in the pipeline — even if the relief might not be tangibly felt in a strained workforce for a number of years to come.

In Massachusetts, the news is even better. While the average age of nursing school graduates has risen in recent years nationally, Scoble said, some Bay State schools are producing a younger crop. Two-thirds of Elms’ nursing graduates this year are about 22 years old, and one-third are around 33. At the bachelor’s degree program at UMass in Amherst, nursing graduates average 22 years old.

That’s good news for area hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities, which consistently snap up the region’s nursing students months before graduation in order to meet a rising need.
“In the United States, we’re in a real crisis to fill nursing positions,” Tarbell said.

But if the rising graduation numbers at area colleges are any indication, help is on the way.

Comments are closed.