JERRY McBRIDE /Durango Herald file photo
JERRY McBRIDE /Durango Herald file photo
Since three years ago when nursing jobs went begging in Colorado, the field has taken a 180-degree turn.
The message today is: Only the experienced need apply. A minimum of two-years experience is required, which makes jobs for newly minted nurses extremely hard to come by.
A recent survey by Colorado Public News found that of 752 nursing jobs advertised statewide by six employers, only four were available to new graduates.
Mercy Regional Medical Center can take its pick, and it does, Human Relations Director Cathy Roberts said Friday.
“We have 30 to 60 applicants for every position we want to fill,” Roberts said. “We find that nurses with years of experience is in the best interest of patient care.”
The ability to speak a language other than English is an advantage, but it doesn’t count in a job interview, Roberts said. Interpreters do the job at Mercy, she said.
Counterparts elsewhere have the same story – the overabundance of nurses is true throughout the state – Roberts said.
Mercy has 881 registered nurses, she said. The turnover of RNs in their first year at Mercy last year, she said, was 16 percent.
Hospital officials aren’t pleased with the rate, but realize that Durango is a hard place to make it economically, she said.
The longest tenured staff nurse – one who deals directly with patients – has been with Mercy 36 years, Roberts said. Others are close behind, she said.
No one from the Southwest Colorado Community College nursing program in Durango was available Friday to comment.
Suzanne Smith, chief nursing officer at San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington, said there have been fewer opportunities in nursing there in the last three years.
But new nursing graduates from San Juan Community College aren’t shut out of the job market because the hospital overhires, Smith said.
San Juan Regional takes perhaps 20 of the 35 to 40 graduates each spring, Smith said. New nurses are eased into the cadre of caregivers so the pace from novice to expert isn’t stressful.
“It’s mutually beneficial,” Smith said. “We tell our new nurses, ‘If we turn you away now, in two years when we need you, you won’t be here.’”
The average annual salary for nurses at San Juan Regional is $47,000.
The Colorado Public News survey found that only a few years ago, nursing was among the fastest-growing professions, spurred by the needs of an expanding population of the elderly.
Nursing schools began to graduate an increasing number of nurses. Their numbers jumped from 73,000 to 161,000 in 10 years.
But it’s a different story today. In a tough economy, veteran nurses are staying put instead of retiring, the Colorado Public News survey found.
“I don’t have any hard evidence of that,” Roberts said. “But, anecdotally, I hear that it could be true.”
The cost of bringing a new nurse up to speed in a given setting can be expensive – another reason to stick with veterans. The survey cited a Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence estimate that it costs $60,000 to $90,000 to familiarize a new nurse with a particular clinic or hospital system.
The average salary for a registered nurse at Mercy is $62,000.
Many new Colorado nursing graduates started nursing school because they were told there would be jobs. And there are, but not many for inexperienced nurses.
Recruiter Dee Cook of S.O.S. Healthcare Staffing says she hates having to turn away new graduates. But, she said, “hospitals want experience. It’s a huge liability kind of industry, and you have to know what you’re doing.”
Competition is fierce. Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver, for example, gets 500 applications a year for 44 slots.
The federal NURSE Corps helps pay student loans for nurses who will work in shortage-plagued rural areas and low-income clinics – but the program also has a glut of applicants.
Nursing college faculty are painfully aware that new graduates are hurting for jobs.
“We’re talking to them about the strategies and what to do when they don’t get their dream job right away,” said Sara Thompson, dean of the University of Colorado College of Nursing.
The CU nursing dean says some of her 240 graduates a year expect to walk straight into an exciting top job, such as the ones they saw on the television shows “ER” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“They have to be willing to work in other settings that are not as glamorous,” the dean said.
Despite the troubles, Thompson predicts the nursing shortage will return soon, when the older generation of nurses finally retires, and because the health-care law will result in new patients beginning January of next year.
In fact, 37 percent of nurses in Colorado are 55 or older, with 9 percent older than 65, according to the Colorado Center for Nursing Excellence.
The group’s CEO, Karren Kowalski, said that after 30 years in the field, she’s seen this cycle happen over and over.
“I would tell new nurses to hang in there but find any kind of job in health care,” Kowalski said.