Come spring, future Florence Nightingales from nursing schools across the country – of which there are more than a dozen in the Philadelphia area alone – will be entering a field that the U.S. Department of Labor has identified as one of the country's fastest-growing occupations in terms of job openings and replacements.
But concurrently, the nation's demand for skilled nurses can't quite be filled. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, last year some 34 states, including Pennsylvania, were projected to have a shortage of nurses. (The organization defines a shortage when a state's demand, based on a variety of factors, outnumbers supply in the state by more than 3 percent.)
"Philadelphia is holding its own in terms of the shortage, but some areas in western Pennsylvania are having a rougher time," reported Sean Clarke, assistant professor and associate director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania. "The shortage is felt [most] in sectors that require training, like dialysis or critical care."
With the first of the baby-boomer generation turning 60 this year – translating into a greater need for general health care, as well as a sudden influx of retiring nurses – students have apparently gotten wind of the demand and the potential for high salaries. Interest in the field has skyrocketed, according to officials at some local nursing schools.
According to a survey released in March 2005 by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, enrollment in entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs increased by 14.1 percent in the fall of 2004, compared to the previous year.
So if so many students can't wait to don their scrubs, what's all the buzz about a shortage?
"There's been a dramatic increase in the number of applicants," said Jill Derstine, chair of the Nursing College of Health Professions at Temple University. "But our enrollment is limited by our faculty and our clinical placements."
In other words, on one side of the spectrum, changing demographics is causing a tremendous need for nurses, but schools nationwide don't have the room or means necessary to accept all qualified applicants. Some experts in the field predict that by 2020, hospitals nationwide may be in the hole by as many as 800,000 nurses. Others say 500,000 may be more like it.
Along with wanting to increase sheer numbers, companies, schools and health-care providers are also working to target a more gender-diversified group. According to some statistics, men make up less than 6 percent of working nurses, and the AACN found that they make up less than 10 percent of enrolled students.
But besides the logistical effects the shortage has had on health-care providers, their bottom line is seeing red.
"We are only able to recruit professional and talented care-giving staff by being competitive in the market place," said Frank Podietz, president and CEO of the Madlyn and Leonard Abramson Center for Jewish Life, a nursing, assisted-living and adult day-care facility in Horsham. "We can do this only at a tremendous expense at a time when the government is rolling back payments to long-term-care providers."
But students like Sarah Farkash, a senior at Penn's School of Nursing, aren't complaining. For one, she said, she's pretty certain she'll be able to get a job in a pediatric intensive-care unit, her department of choice.
According to her, the nursing school had the lowest unemployment rate upon graduation of all the individual schools affiliated with Penn – a fact that was verified by the career center.
To boot, she added, the shortage has brought attention to the profession, perhaps making it seem more trendy than stodgy images from the past.
"When I first made my career decision, I had my Jewish family friends and my friends from my synagogue telling me that I was making the wrong decision by going into nursing – or that I was ruining my life," said Farkash, who grew up in Seminole, Fla. "People thought it wasn't really a stable career or that you are just supposed to be – or marry – a Jewish doctor."
Clarke said that students in the Philadelphia area can usually expect to make $55,000 to $60,000 straight out of nursing school. This estimate doesn't include considerable benefits, he noted, as well as the ability to earn significant amounts in overtime, not to mention flexible scheduling.
Gloria Donnelly, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University, said last year that some of her students even received signing bonuses of $25,000. Farkash heard it could be higher.
But while it's easy for the students to revel in job security and large compensation packages, their inner urge to help seems to shine through.
"It's comforting and it's upsetting," stated freshmen Yael Kessler, who ultimately hopes to practice midwifery in Israel. "It's sad that nurses are so crucial to patients' recovery, and that hospitals are understaffed. But it's comforting to know that wherever I need to live, it'll be very easy to find a place to work."