By Debra Wood, RN, contributor
June 10, 2011 - Economists may have declared the recession over, but for the more than 9 percent of Americans still out of work and everyone else feeling the pinch of rising gas and food prices, the economic realities remain disheartening. Consequently, nurses and other health care workers have delayed retirement.
Marvel Williamson, Ph.D., RN, CNE, ANEF, reported older nurses are looking for ways to extend their careers and may find more opportunities away from the bedside.
“People are still scared about the recession, even though there are signs of recovery,” said Marvel Williamson, Ph.D., RN, CNE, ANEF, dean of the Kramer School of Nursing at Oklahoma City University. “Spouses or other relatives have lost jobs. People aren’t spending as much money and we’re all being more careful and cautious. Nurses are waiting to see if it will hold, building a nest egg and keeping some security intact.”
A new report, “U.S. Workers Delaying Retirement: What Businesses Can Learn from the Trends of Who, Where and Why,” by The Conference Board, a business membership and research association, indicates the health care industry has experienced the greatest decline in retirement of any market segment, with only 1.6 percent of full-time workers aged 55 to 64 retiring in 2009-2010, compared with 4 percent in 2004-2007.
“People’s 401ks have not rebounded completely yet,” said Linda Plank, Ph.D., RN, a lecturer at the Baylor University Louise Herrington School of Nursing in Dallas. “Everyone took a quite a hit in 2009, and some are not back to where they were. Some people are insecure about retiring now, because it could happen again.”
“People are worried that they cannot afford to retire,” added Patricia Gonce Morton, Ph.D., RN, ACNP, FAAN, associate dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Maryland School of Nursing in Baltimore.
From the service provider side of nursing, Cole Edmonson, DNP, RN, FACHE, NEA-BC, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, added that he senses a tremendous amount of apprehension about retiring or changing jobs. In addition to the economy and loss of personal worth, he attributes nurses staying in their current positions to changes in the industry.
“Health care remains in a state of transition with health care reform, declining volumes in many facilities, and shifts of patient volumes to joint venture and for-profit entities,” Edmonson said.
With experienced nurses remaining in their jobs, new graduates are finding it harder and harder to get jobs, Plank said. Three or four years ago, Baylor students would receive three or four offers and could land the job of their choice. But during the last couple of years, some students had not received job offers by the time they graduated.
Edmonson indicated that Texas Presbyterian in Dallas received more than 700 applications for 25 summer RN resident positions.
Opportunities for new graduates vary geographically, Morton said.
Patricia Gonce Morton, Ph.D., RN, ACNP, FAAN, said nurses are still delaying retirement due to the economic downturn.
“A new graduate may have to search more and longer than they did in the past and may not get his or her first choice position,” Morton said. “Hospitals that have or are seeking Magnet status prefer to hire baccalaureate graduates. So, nurses who have graduated from a diploma program or an associate degree program will have more difficulty finding their first position and may want to consider returning to school for their baccalaureate degree.”
Williamson said her BSN graduates are still receiving multiple job offers and finding jobs that fit their needs.
“There is still a tremendous need out there,” Williamson said.
Debra Sullivan, Ph.D.(c), MSN, RN, CNE, assistant professor at the Middle Tennessee State University School of Nursing, another BSN program, reported that graduates are finding jobs but perhaps not their preferred shift or department.
“They seem to be successful,” Sullivan said.
From the hospital perspective, nurses delaying retirement has had a positive effect on facilities’ financial condition, Edmonson reported.
“Along with a decrease in turnover and lower vacancy rates, the intellectual drain of institutional and professional nursing knowledge has been delayed for a number of years,” said Edmonson. However, he added that the wave of retiring nurses is still coming.
“We must for the sake of the future patients and the health care system continue to fund nursing education, and graduate new nurses at or above the current rate, with transition programs like residencies to attract and retain one of our nation's most valuable professions: nursing,” he said.
Most everyone agrees the easing of the nursing shortage is temporary. More nurses will be needed in the future, with the population aging and the influx of insured Americans anticipated due to passage of the Affordable Care Act. Plank reported that starting in January 2012, 10,000 people per day will reach Medicare age.
Analysts with the Bureau of Labor Statistics project that more than 581,000 new RN positions will be created through 2018, Morton added.
“The projections are dire,” said Williamson, adding that she expects a larger crisis than originally anticipated before the recession hit.
Plank called the current situation an experienced nurse shortage.
“Hospitals cannot fill all of their vacancies with new grads,” Plank said. “They need experienced nurses to mentor new grads.”
However, mature nurses cannot stay at the bedside forever. Acute care nursing is physically demanding and more difficult for older nurses, Morton said.
“Nurses are getting older and cannot work 12-hour shifts,” Plank agreed. “When you are 65, that’s a lot of hours on your feet. At some point it will catch up with us and you will see more and more nurses retiring.”
Some hospitals have created less-taxing roles for older nurses, such as mentoring positions. Mature nurses also may transition into roles with insurance companies, law firms or employee on-site clinics.
“They are eagerly looking for opportunities to extend their career, without having to be on their feet for so many hours a day,” Williamson said. “What’s creating those new jobs is the realization nurses are well educated for filling a lot of [positions].”
Sullivan said she expects retirements will trickle in and nurses will not leave en mass. In addition, she has noted more interest in nurses returning for advanced degrees so they can become faculty members.
“It’s not as hard on your body to teach nursing as to work on a floor,” Sullivan said.
That will bode well, since many nurse educators are reaching retirement age, at a time when the profession needs to boost graduation rates.
“Schools are facing a huge wave of retiring faculty since the average age of a faculty member is mid to late 50s, and they tend to retire at about age 62,” Morton said.
Although some nurses will seek less strenuous employment options, many are expected to leave the profession once the economy stabilizes.
“This will very much impact the system, if we have a large number of retirees at the same time,” Morton said. “It will exacerbate the nursing shortage and put additional pressure on schools of nursing to graduate more students.”
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