Carol Pace is tired of working with computers and wants to work with people.
That’s why the Mesa resident is pursuing a career in nursing, and starts nursing school this week at Mesa Community College.
She waited until her children were grown so she would have the time and opportunity to train for a new career
"I do medical billing in a medical office, and I got tired of working with computers," she said. "I want to work with people and feel I can make a difference. One of the reasons I became interested in nursing was when I was in the hospital the nurses took such good care of me. And then my son was in the hospital and the nurses took such excellent care of him, and that motivated me to choose that as a career so I could help people."
For several years there’s been a shortage of nurses across Arizona, and that’s still the case, but it’s no longer because people aren’t interested in becoming nurses. Instead, nursing schools are being overrun with applicants and are scrambling to expand their programs to accommodate more students.
"In spite of the fact that we now have an abundance of people applying to schools, there is still even more need than what the schools can produce," said Marla Weston, executive director of the Arizona Nurses Association. "For awhile we will be playing catch up. The bottleneck right now is in getting people educated."
Nursing schools across the Valley have been taking more students in recent years, but there’s still a long list of people left out at the start of each semester.
The Arizona State Board of Nursing reported there were 756 qualified applicants last year across the state who were unable to get into nursing programs because there was no room for them.
This spring, the Maricopa Community College District accepted 357 of 647 qualified applicants, said Leann Swanson, director of continuing education and community services for health care education.
"Our nursing program is at seven of our 10 colleges right now, and we’re trying to expand the program through industry partnerships . .. so we can get more students in," she said.
Adam Rivera of Mesa is entering his last semester of nursing school at Mesa Community College, and looks forward to working in an emergency room and intensive care unit, then moving into an operating room.
"It’s an actual career that pays well, and I get to care about my community," he said. "I feel that there’s more men wanted in the field, so that’s more desire for me to get involved in it. It’s a lot of work and it’s well worth it."
CAN’T MEET DEMAND
There’s a variety of reasons why the nursing shortage continues despite the fact that more people want to go into nursing, said Adda Alexander, a registered nurse and executive vice president of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.
"The nursing work force in Arizona is aging," she said. "Nationally the average age of a registered nurse is 43 and in Arizona it’s between 45 and 46, depending on the hospital. Nurses tend to retire earlier than a lot of other professions because physically it’s a very demanding job. So we already know that we’re going to have a large bulk of our nursing staff retiring early."
The nursing shortage has been well publicized, and major advertising campaigns, such as Johnson & Johnson’s DiscoverNursing.com, have been launched in recent years touting the benefits of the profession, Weston said. A lot of people have been paying attention, particularly those who may be looking for a career with more security, she said.
"There is always job security, there will always be people who need health care," she said. "Also, within nursing itself, there is a lot of variety. You can work in a hospital, as a school nurse, in a factory taking care of people’s health care needs there, in public health, as a nursing instructor, etc. You could be a nurse for 50 years, but within that have eight different career paths."
Hospitals and other health care providers have been increasing their salary and benefit packages to entice more people to go into nursing, Weston said.
Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show the median annual salary of registered nurses was $48,090 in 2002. The midrange group earned between $40,140 and $57,490.
The lowest 10 percent earned less than $33,970, and the highest 10 percent more than $69,670
The Arizona State University College of Nursing had to turn away more than 50 applicants who qualified for admission this fall, said Jean Craig Stengel, the college’s director of student services.
"Up until last January we were admitting 80 students in January and August," she said. "Starting last January we increased that to 120 and we’ll admit 120 this week. We plan on increasing by increments of 10 starting next January . We’ll increase every year by 10."
With demand so high, nursing school students are treated like stars as they approach graduation, said Myrna Eshelman, chairwoman of the Mesa Community College Nursing Department.
"It’s sort of like having a star football player from college and the NFL pros come in and try to recruit them out from under you," she said.
"Our students are highly sought after, and because there’s such a nursing shortage, almost everybody has a job well before they graduate."
All nursing schools are in desperate need of faculty, more classroom space and clinical space, Eshelman said.
"We have one large classroom, and all of our other classrooms are smaller, so that really inhibits how many students we can admit," she said. "Also, nursing faculty are retiring at an alarming rate and the average age for nursing faculty is even older than it is for staff nurses."
Hiring pools for nursing instructors have been "pretty abysmal," Eshelman said.
As for clinical space, hospitals and other health care providers across the Valley are swamped with nursing students, she said.
"They have students every shift, every day, Saturdays and Sundays, and nights," she said. "So it is overwhelming for a staff nurse to every day be working with a different student with different assignments, different expectations and different abilities to do things."
As for attracting faculty, money is a big obstacle when trying to persuade nurses to become instructors, Stengel said.
"The salary you get as a practicing nurse is far better than what you would get if you came to teach," she said.
"People who teach do so because they love to teach and they want to teach, and they want to be in the university setting. But many times they are taking a cut in pay from what they could get if they were in a clinical setting."
Teaching nursing is considered an attractive career option, but salary does get in the way, Weston said.
Hospitals across the Valley are partnering with nursing schools to get more applicants trained and to offer more students clinical experience.
"A lot of hospitals are becoming very creative around the times that they’re having clinical rotations," Weston said.
"Also, a lot of hospitals are funding faculty positions or partial positions, or giving their nursing staff on loan to be faculty, those kinds of things."
Some of the partnerships in place include those between Banner Health System and Gateway Community College, Scottsdale Healthcare and Scottsdale Community College, and John C. Lincoln Health Network and Paradise Valley Community College, Swanson said.
In the East Valley, newer facilities are helping to provide more opportunities for qualified candidates, and more is on the way.
MCCD is planning to open a nursing program in Chandler-Gilbert Community College by fall 2005, Swanson said.
"They are in the process now of hiring a nursing program director who will spend the next year getting the program up and going," she said. "You have to go through accreditation and that sort of thing. Chandler-Gilbert will be our eighth college that would have a nursing program."
Also, ASU East is providing more slots for nursing students, Stengel said.
"We admitted 40 students to ASU East in January and our plan is to admit 50 students next January," she said. "We have to be able to find qualified faculty to do this."