Nursing: Hot Job, High Pay -- So Where Are the Takers?

As the recession continues, layoffs batter industry after industry, from banking to auto manufacturing to construction to retail.

But for at least one occupation, demand is still high -- so high that job candidates have been plied with incentives that range from gas cards to $20,000-signing bonuses to an opportunity to meet a celebrity. (News cameras recently captured former "Love Connection" host Chuck Woolery participating in a recruiting event.)

These sought-after candidates are nurses, and experts say the lavish efforts to recruit them are symptomatic of a desperate industry.

VIDEO: Nurse tends to a patient.

Despite relatively high salaries -- nurses earn an average of more than $62,000 a year, about $36,000 more than the mean U.S. salary, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics -- the United States is facing a dire nursing shortage. By 2015, the country is expected to be short at least 300,000 nurses, according to some projections.

"We have older people who are requiring more health care, and so we have more demand. We need more nurses, and we expect that as the nurses retire they won't be replaced by new graduates," said Christine Kovner, a nursing professor at New York University.

Even the nation's crumbling auto industry has taken notice of the nursing shortage. The Henry Ford Health System, established by Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford, has partnered with a university in Rochester, Mich., to establish a new nursing training program specifically for laid-off auto workers.

"There is a nursing shortage out there nationally," said program spokesman David Olejarz. "We felt this was an opportunity to provide these people who were going to be impacted [by auto layoffs] to pursue a new career."

The lack of nursing graduates may be only a part of the problem. Because of poor working conditions, hospitals in particular also struggle to retain the nurses they've hired. Veteran nurse Dean Caputo, 52, remembers working at a hospital where the staff was so thin it compromised patient safety. Caputo, who lives in Beverly Hills, Mich., said there were supply shortages that left nurses scrounging, and that overall, the nurses felt ignored by management.

"It's sad," he said. "The majority of nurses want to do the right thing, but when you're not offered the resources to do your job, it's very hard."

"We have a revolving door with nurses," said Diana Mason, a registered nurse and the editor in chief of the American Journal of Nursing. "If you don't fix the workplace, we will never fix the shortage because the new nurses will leave."

And because of the overall nursing shortage, she said, unhappy nurses have plenty of options when it comes to finding new work.

Older Patients, Older Nurses

There are about 2.5 million registered nurses in the United States, about 700,000 more than there were in 2000, according to government data. But the rising number of trained nurses isn't keeping up with demand: As the general population ages -- a trend driven largely by the aging wave of baby boomers -- more nurses are needed to serve the needs of this population in one way or another.

"Some parts of the country are so challenged for nurses that they are recruiting nurses internationally from places like India and China," said Mary Walker, the dean of the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing at Loyola University in Chicago.

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