Health Care Sector Jobs Slowly Rebounding From Recession

Sep 17, 2013

Nursing schools around the country have seen a jump in enrollment in the last few years. Many students were hoping to get in on what was supposed to be a recession-proof field: the growing health care sector. Instead, new graduates faced a tough market.

Taking The Plunge

Ross McGilvray, 37, of West Seattle knows first-hand what that’s like. For a decade he was a mechanic and shop supervisor, eventually winding up as a service manager for a road construction company. Then the economy tanked, and he was downsized out of a job.

While he could have gone back to working as a mechanic, he figured he was ready for a career change. Like hundreds of people in the Puget Sound region, he chose nursing. “There are some interesting parallels between the world of nursing and the world of mechanics and diagnostics,” he said. “I find that cars require an understanding of all individual systems that require them to function properly, and nursing is much the same way.”

McGilvray had a window into the nursing life. His wife is a nurse practitioner. He saw how the profession provided a good work-life balance. That was important to him because of another life change that coincided with his need for a new career.

“We also found out that we were expecting our first child, which was intended and planned," he said, laughing. "It was the career change that was the unexpected part.”

Nursing schools were so swamped that they had to turn down more than 75,000 qualified applicants.

McGilvray’s career path mirrors a national trend. Many analysts had been predicting job growth in health care in the coming decades. Enrollment in nursing schools around the country surged soon after the recession hit. In 2011, more than 200,000 people applied for baccalaureate and advanced degrees in nursing. Nursing schools were so swamped that they had to turn down more than 75,000 qualified applicants.

But the projections didn’t quite pan out as expected. Instead, new graduates faced a competitive job market. McGilvray got an inkling of that through a friend who was ahead of him in their nursing program. She struggled to find work in Denver, her hometown. Eventually, he said, she cast her net wider and took a two-year contract in Nome, Alaska.

The Great Recession’s Ripple Effect

The job market in the Puget Sound region was just as tough. So what happened?  For some time the industry had been projecting a nursing shortage because a large number of aging nurses were preparing to leave the workforce.

Projected nursing job openings did not materialize as quickly as expected due to nurses staying in the workforce instead of retiring.
Projected nursing job openings did not materialize as quickly as expected due to nurses staying in the workforce instead of retiring.
Credit KUOW/Kara McDermott

But instead, many decided to put their retirement plans on hold. Charleen Tachibana, chief nursing officer at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, saw that trend in action. “When the economy dipped, clearly people hung on to their jobs and decided, well, I’ll just go another year, maybe another two years or wait till this picks back up,” she said.

Now that the economy is picking up, nurses who had planned to retire are in fact leaving or cutting back their hours. It may not seem like it, but demand for nurses is picking up, Tachibana said. “First of all, the population is aging, which puts more people into needs for care,” she said. “But the Affordable Care Act will likely bring more uninsured or under-insured people into the care system.”

Hospitals make up about half of the job market in health care, but they’re not the only places that need nurses. Tachibana said there’s also a growing demand in outpatient clinics. The looming question is whether there will be enough nurses to fill that demand down the road.

Linda Tieman, executive director of the Washington Center for Nursing, doesn’t think so. Tieman’s organization keeps track of the state’s nursing workforce. “We’ve lagged behind and that’s because of the economic situation in our state where the schools have not been able to expand their capacity,” she said. “They’re at capacity and have been for quite a while, even though, ironically, some of their graduates are struggling right now to find jobs.”

Tieman said demand for nurses will pick up even more, starting in 2015, when the next wave of nurses retire — the same time more patients are coming into the system. Tieman had this advice to new graduates: “I would say don’t despair.”

She said the perfect job may not be there, at first. But there are other options. “Take a job where you can learn from other nurses the art of being a nurse,” Tieman said. “You won’t learn it by working out of other industries. You’ll only learn it from working with nurses.”

A New Career Path

It’s 7:00 p.m. on a recent evening and the nurses on the ninth floor of Virginia Mason Medical Center are changing shifts. The shift change starts with a team huddle so nurses from the day shift can share patient information with nurses working the night shift.

This is the Telemetry unit, where patients transition from the ICU or the emergency room. It’s McGilvray’s  first job out of nursing school. He graduated in August last year. McGilvray said it took about seven months of searching before he was hired. In the meantime, he went back to working on cars.

“I was lucky in that I still had a great connection with the shop I used to work at,” he said. “I contacted them and said this is what I’m trying to do, trying to find work — do you need help at the shop in the meantime? They were gracious and said yes.”

McGilvray said he wanted to find work that would lead toward his career goal — to be a flight nurse. He said that will require specific skill sets in different areas of medicine, such as pediatric intensive care and emergency care. “I need to find a position that would start ticking off those boxes,” he said. “So somewhere down the road I may be qualified to do that goal.”

McGilvray works the night shift in the Telemetry unit. It’s a tough schedule, and the work can be intense, but rewarding. He says he enjoys every moment of it.

“I love interacting with people,” he said. “Sometimes nursing is as simple as being present with a person as they’re going through a difficult time.”  

This story is part of The Big Reset, KUOW’s series that explores how the Puget Sound Region has emerged from the Great Recession.