Do Nurses Have Job Security in an Insecure Economy?

With consumers struggling to pay medical expenses, an increase in the number of uninsured patients and hospitals losing their return on investments, many health care facilities are feeling the pinch. While the short term outlook for health care remains uncertain, one thing is without doubt—nursing is still one of the healthiest career options, even during tough times.

Statistics show that health care is more robust than most other industries, at least when it comes to job opportunities. While the United States as a whole lost 2.6 million jobs in 2008, health care jobs grew by 419,000, with the largest growth in nursing jobs at 168,000.

As 2009 began with announcements of one large corporate layoff after another, the nursing employment forecast looked less bleak, but could that outlook change as the economy continues to weaken?

“Overall the opportunities are really, really good,” said Carol S. Brewer, RN, Ph.D., professor of nursing at the University at Buffalo School of Nursing and director of the New York State Area Health Education Center (AHEC) System.

In fact, the job outlook appears strong enough to be attracting workers from other occupations who are looking for a career that offers good compensation, ample opportunities and job security.

While the short-term demand for nurses may not continue to grow as it has in previous years and new graduates may have a harder time finding employment in the near term, the projected deficit, according to Peter Buerhaus, RN, Ph.D., FAAN, is a shortfall of 285,000 registered nurses by 2020. That bodes well for nurses who are thinking about their long-term job security and future growth opportunities.

Nursing as a Second Career

This long-term job growth, coupled with recent improvements in compensation, have made nursing an enticing option for many who are considering a career change in this uncertain economy.

“Nursing is attractive as a career choice partly because of the higher wages,” said Brewer. “Also because more opportunities are available—especially compared to other industries—and, with many accelerated programs, candidates can get into the field in a relatively short period of time if they already have a degree.” Many second degree programs allow students to complete their nursing studies in just 12 to 15 months.

In a recent study published in the Journal of Professional Nursing, Brewer, lead investigator Christine Kovner, RN, Ph.D., F.A.A.N., from the New York University College of Nursing, and a team of researchers also found that second degree nurses tended to be more satisfied with their first nursing jobs and planned to stay longer than new graduates whose first degree was in nursing.

Partly because of their desire for greater stability, Brewer and Kovner believe these second degree nurses could have a positive impact on the nation’s nursing shortage.

Nursing Turnover

Along with the addition of new nurses from other fields, the economy and impending changes in health care policy, there could be an impact on turnover rates and the resulting number of job opportunities.

“The big trend to watch is what the economic crisis does to health care,” said Brewer. “While job turnover may be slowing down, it can cause a ripple effect, as nurses exercise more caution in changing jobs.”

“Another big potential change is what the new administration does in health care reform,” she continued. “We can’t make any predictions, however, until we see the kinds of reforms that are proposed.”

Drop in Vacancy Rates

Brenda L. Cleary, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., director of the Center to Champion Nursing in America, notes that for now, job vacancy rates have dropped somewhat from their all-time high.

“Because of the economy, many part-time nurses are going full-time and some of those who have been out of the workforce are coming back, but we still have a substantial vacancy rate in hospitals,” said Cleary. “Demand still exceeds supply.”

In essence, nurses shouldn’t worry. While the current employment picture for nurses isn’t quite as robust as it has been in recent years, the demand for nurses is still high.

“Even if nurses don’t have six offers to choose from or they may not get their first pick right out of school, they’ll get a job.”

“The job market is incredibly strong,” she continued. “Demand is going to grow, and certain sectors will even see an additional demand for nurses.”

For instance, officials at AARP see a growing need for nurses to help patients with “healthy aging,” filling the demand for more workers in primary care, prevention and wellness services. An older patient population also increases the incidence of chronic illnesses. “Thus we expect nurses will have a growing role in chronic care management and other specialized areas,” said Cleary.

Graduate Study

Cleary’s advice to anyone who is wants to enter nursing or advance their nursing career is to consider graduate study, and choose a quality educational program with a quick path. The additional education provides nurses with even more options and control over their careers.

“The increases in demand for jobs with graduate preparation will grow,” said Cleary, “including the need for more advanced practice nurses and nurses in other leadership roles.”

Considering the overall job outlook, Cleary feels that nurses who stay in the profession can expect a long career with plenty of employment opportunities.

“Nurses historically are very employable. Even if demand drops, it will never go away— there will always be a great need and economic demand for nurses,” explained Cleary.

Brewer agreed. “Nursing is a great field to be in, even during an economic downturn.”