Nursing job openings took a hit in bad economy

We posted a bunch of stories and data last summer about the market for registered nurses in Minnesota and the country, and we asked aloud if colleges were producing too many nurses.

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The response from several national nursing groups was, basically, that we were way out of line and that the demand for nurses in the future remains huge despite a short term drop in demand caused by the recession.

Updated data, though, show the job situation hasn’t improved much a year and a half since the recession ended and the recovery officially began.

The table below shows what’s happened to job vacancies for registered nurses in Minnesota.

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(Source: Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development)

The recession slashed job vacancies by more than 75 percent. There is a recovery. But like other sectors of Minnesota’s economy the bounce back is not great. Registered nurse openings at the end of 2010 remain more than 50 percent down from the start of the recession.

Here it is in a chart form.

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At the same time RN vacancies were diving, the annual crop of newly minted RNs continued to rise.

Here’s a look at the number of first-time takers of the NCLEX exam in Minnesota. The NCLEX is the gatekeeper national exam to become a working nurse. First-time test takers offer a decent snapshot of the potential pool of people coming out of college and adding to the RN work force.

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The combination of new grads and plummeting opportunities drove down the employment prospects for people who graduated with nursing degrees in the recession.

Here’s a table from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System breaking down the number of nursing graduates and the percentage employed after one year (click on the table for a larger view).

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Before the recession, getting an RN job within a year of earning a degree was a virtual certainty. Two years later that was no longer the case.

No doubt that the economy put a major squeeze on hospitals and other health care providers.

Like every other business, they were cutting jobs and trying to hold down costs. It’s also more than likely that older nurses put off retirement in the tough economic times, dampening the number of openings for new grads.

Job openings have started to pick up again. But if you were someone who went back to college to retrain as a nurse thinking a well paying “recession-proof” job awaited, you might have been shocked.

MPR’s Tom Robertson got at this issue in a recent story that featured laid off lumber mill workers who went back to school and retrained to become nurses.

Before the lumber mill closed, 56-year-old Curt Peterson never would have guessed he’d be a student again. He said the pace has been grueling.

“It’s just been nose to the grindstone,” Peterson said. “And you’re thinking, ‘Oh, will it ever end?’ Well, here we are, and it’s, ‘Oh, my gosh, now we have to get a job.’ ”

Peterson thought he could ride out the recession in school and come out with a nursing degree that was in high demand. But he’s finding there are fewer local job openings than he’d expected. And competition for those jobs may be intense.

The most recent Minnesota labor projections still project an average need for about 2,400 new RNs a year through 2019 to meet new demand and replace retiring nurses.

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If that holds, it matches up decently with the number of new grads passing the RN gatekeeper exam in Minnesota. Problem is, we don’t know how many people from other states and other countries are looking for RN jobs in Minnesota.

Our concern remains the significant number of people like Curt Peterson who went back to nursing school at community colleges for two-year degrees thinking they would get great paying super flexible jobs at hospitals. Those jobs dried up and as the economy recovers hospitals will be able to choose RNs with bachelors degrees from the pool of RNs still seeking jobs.

Associate degree graduates may find jobs, but they’re more likely to be at assisted care facilities and clinics, which generally pay much less than hospitals and have less flexible schedules.

So if you were a mid-career person who thought you could get more money and better working conditions by going back to school for two years to become a nurse, you might be seriously disappointed.

That’s a message that, in the short term anyway, prospective students need to hear.

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