Health Care

Wichita’s nursing shortage over – for now

The decades-long nursing shortage in Wichita appears over – at least temporarily.

Graduating nursing students are finding fewer job openings and more competition from experienced nurses who have stayed on or returned because of the economic downturn. And even as the demand for nurses slows, the supply continues to grow as more training slots at more schools open up.

It’s forced job applicants, and especially new graduates, to look harder, take less desirable shifts or specialties, or travel to find work, say nursing school administrators.

“They may love pediatrics or want intensive care, but they may not get their first choice,” said Betty Smith-Campbell, chairwoman and professor at Wichita State University’s School of Nursing.

It’s not right to call it a glut, they say. It’s more of stabilization between supply and demand. There are still hundreds of job openings in the Wichita area for nurses of all types. Via Christi alone said it has 64 job openings for registered nurses at its hospitals.

And hospital and nursing school officials say the signs pointing to a long-term nursing shortage are irrefutable. Over the next 18 years, 10,000 baby boomers a day will turn 65. And even as the population skews older and sicker, more nurses will retire, creating what one estimate says will be a 500,000-nurse shortfall by 2025.

It’s because the demographics are so powerful that many in health care were caught by surprise by the disappearance of the nursing shortage in the last few years. The state funded a sharp increase in nursing training slots starting in 2007. The number of non-traditional schools offering nursing training continues to rise. More local students are being admitted to and graduating from nursing schools than before the recession – at the same time fewer nurses are retiring.

“We really want the economy to pick back up,” said Anita Mills, Butler Community College’s dean of nursing, allied health and early childhood education. “The last things we want is for our graduates to get out and not find a job. It’s been decades since we’ve had this conversation about nursing jobs. It really is different now.”

Supply and demand

Hospital administrators and nursing educators said Wichita has a history of seeing the number of nursing applicants swell whenever the aircraft industry lays off. Often, they said, spouses look to return to work or shift to full time to make up for lost wages. At the same time, though, during this recession, hospitals have seen patient counts fall as people opt to put off procedures for financial reasons.

Wesley Medical Center hired less than a third of its applicants in 2010 and 2011, said chief nursing officer Kathy Neely.

The hospital has just 12 openings for registered nurses.

“We’re being more selective these days,” she said. “We’re seeking candidates with higher degrees, a BSN (bachelor of science in nursing) rather than an associate’s degree.”

Via Christi Hospitals Wichita this week had 64 openings posted, but only some are for new nursing graduates.

Via Christi said it is bucking the national and local trend of paring back on hiring, said Linda Goodwin, Via Christ’s chief nursing officer. Last year the hospital group committed to adding 100 full-time nurses at its St. Francis and East Harry campuses while it trimmed administrative staff.

“We’re hiring more (nurses) than in 2008,” she said. “We are rededicating ourselves to patient care.”

RN vs. LPN

The nursing situation mostly affects hospitals, acute care facilities and the two- and four-year registered nurses who staff them, said Jan Wilson, director of nursing for Wichita Area Technical College.

WATC trains licensed practical nurses, which is a one-year program. LPNs serve a different market and have been less affected by the downturn, she said.

“The hospitals hire LPNs when they can’t get enough RNs,” she said. “So our graduates aren’t seeing as many opportunities there. But LPNs are the backbone of the long-term care industry and that hasn’t been affected. In fact, that has only increased with several new facilities opening recently.”

At the same time that demand for registered nurses has stabilized, the number of nurses graduating from local nursing schools is growing.

The number of students entering two- and four-year nursing programs in Kansas rose from 2,191 in 2006-2007 to 2,608 in 2010-2011, a 19 percent increase. The number graduating from nursing programs in Kansas rose 32 percent between 2007 and 2011.

The Kansas Legislature committed funds in 2007 to support additional nursing training. Wichita State University, for one, expanded from 160 slots in 2007 to 350 slots today in traditional classroom programs, an accelerated 14-month program and an online program to boost associate degree nurses to bachelor’s degrees.

Traditional private and for-profit colleges have also continued to churn out new graduates. And Wright Career College, a nonprofit school based at Towne East Square, is now seeking approval to open a registered nurse training program.

Mills, with Butler Community College, which trains associate-level registered nurses, said she’s concerned about the number of students now, although she said she doesn’t intend to cut back slots at Butler, at this point.

“We have a professional and ethical responsibility to make sure there are opportunities out there for them when they graduate,” Mills said.


Longer term, the shortage will return with a vengeance as soon as the economy turns up, or maybe sooner, say educators.

Not only will the baby boomers fill up ever more hospital beds as they age, many of those nurses who worked through the recession for financial reasons will depart. And suddenly, the shortage will grow acute.

As patients get older and sicker, local hospitals are responding by emphasizing nursing care. Both Via Christi and Wesley are part of a movement to improve nursing care by adopting Nursing Magnet status. As part of that, they are trying to raise their percentage of nurses with four-year degrees from nearly 50 percent to 80 percent by 2020.

That means a premium on nursing students with bachelor’s degrees and a strong push to get their RNs with associate degrees to go back to school. There are several programs around the area to help make that move from two-year to four-year degrees.

None of the administrators wanted to discourage people from going into nursing. There are still jobs, and the long-term outlook is solid. It’s just that, for now, students may want to adjust their expectations.

Andrew Regoli got the job of his wishes when he got on at the critical care unit at Via Christi’s East Harry campus a few weeks ago.

Although he lived in and attended college in Florida, he opted to seek work in Wichita where he has family because of the intense competition for nursing jobs in Florida.

Job opportunities for new nurses in Wichita are better, he said, but competition can still be fierce.

“I hear from people who tell me ‘Oh, you’re so lucky finding a job,’ ” he said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle