Students graduating from nursing programs this month are finding something they probably didn't expect:
The nursing shortage, at least in Wichita, has eased considerably, and vacancies aren't abundant, as they have been for the past several years.
But the shortage-turned-surplus could be short-lived, warn those in the field.
"We have seen kind of a swing of the pendulum," said Terri Pajas, manager of talent acquisition for Via Christi hospitals and outpatient centers in Wichita.
Jennifer Carr, registered nurse recruiter at Wesley Medical Center, said, "I have an enormous number of applications right now."
"We certainly don't want to let our guard down. I personally feel that as the economy improves, we'll see a shift back in the other direction. And it will probably happen as quickly."
Pat Plank, president of the Kansas State Nurses Association, said the nursing work force supply and demand regularly fluctuates.
"Right now, the demand is not quite as high because of the overall changes in the economy," said Plank, a nurse at Family Health and Rehabilitation Center in Wichita.
Carr and Pajas also say the economy has played a role in their low turnover rates.
Experienced nurses who'd taken a break from work have returned, they said, and part-time nurses have moved to full-time status. In many cases, the moves have been the result of spouses losing their jobs.
Even with Via Christi opening a new hospital in far west Wichita in August, "we have a very robust pool" of applicants, Pajas said.
What's great for those who hire nurses isn't so great for those hoping to be hired, especially new graduates.
Mary Koehn, acting chairwoman of the School of Nursing at Wichita State University, said students there are finding jobs — though perhaps not the Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 shifts they'd like.
And interest in nursing continues to be high. More than 100 applicants applied for 35 open slots in the fall class, she said.
The accelerated nursing program, in which students earn a degree in 15 months, also is popular, with 41 applicants for its 30 spots, Koehn said.
The continued interest is good, Koehn said, because as the economy improves, the pendulum is likely to swing again. And the average age of nurses "is still up there."
Plank said, "All you have to do is look at the average age of nurses, and you can tell that probably within five years, definitely within 10, there's going to be a lot of nurses retiring.... Trying to educate enough nurses to replace those who are retiring is a real challenge."
Couple that with the aging of baby boomers, who will begin to need more care, and national health care reform efforts to increase access to care, and the need for more nurses becomes evident.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expected the number of nursing jobs to grow by 22 percent between 2008 and 2018.
The Kansas Hospital Association predicts that 11,811 job openings for registered nurses will be created between 2004 and 2014. That number is a combination of new and replacement job openings and an increase of 24 percent, the association said.
Koehn said she has seen an increased number of nurses interested in earning advanced degrees that allow them more autonomy in their practice.
A bill was introduced in the Kansas Legislature that would have allowed advanced practitioners to practice independently, but it did not make it out of committee, Koehn said.
Independent nurse practitioners "could really help, particularly in western Kansas and some of your rural communities," Koehn said, as well as helping fill the primary care shortage expected as a result of health reform.
That will be especially true in rural areas, Plank said.
"A lot of times in those areas, nurse practitioners are providing the primary care, and they're the only ones available," she said.
She also expects growth in senior care services throughout the state, as the population ages.
Carr said she could fill any openings she currently has "probably 10 times over." Her colleagues tell her that's also the case in Topeka and Kansas City.
But she has a message for those new grads looking for work — and a message about the future:
"Please be patient. Please keep in touch," she said. "This is not the norm."