May 24, 2010 -- Nursing is supposed to be one of the country's most in-demand professions -- so why can't Muna Abdi find a job?
"I have been just trying to apply anywhere I can get possibly get any position," said Abdi, 22, a recent graduate of St. Catherine University in Minnesota. "I get letters to my e-mail saying, 'We're no longer filling that position,' or, 'We found someone more qualified.'"
Despite long-range projections of major U.S. nursing shortages, would-be nurses in some parts of the country now are finding that gaining employment is no longer the sure bet it once was.
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing said that colleges in Minnesota, New York, New Jersey and California all report that there seem to be more nursing graduates than there are jobs in those regions. At St. Catherine, two-thirds of nursing graduates have yet to find work, according to a university survey.
Layoffs and hiring freezes at hospitals account for at least part of the problem. In Minnesota, hospitals have slashed more than 2,200 positions since the fall of 2008, according to the Minnesota Hospital Association.
Though the layoffs largely affected administrative jobs, the union representing 12,000 nurses in the Twin Cities region said its members are still smarting from the cutbacks.
"Our nurses really feel like the Twin Cities hospitals are dangerously understaffed and that patient lives are being put in jeopardy," said John Nemo, a spokesman for the Minnesota Nurses Association, which is now locked in a contentious contract dispute with Twin Cities Hospitals, an organization of 14 hospitals in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Maureen Schriner, a spokeswoman for Twin Cities Hospitals, said the hospitals' staffing ratios are still above national standards.
"We have better patient outcomes, better quality of care, better safety records than anywhere in the country," she said.
The hospitals say they're just doing what they can to keep health care affordable while grappling with cuts to state funding and continuing to invest in technology and facilities improvements.
Union members, meanwhile, argue that the hospitals are spending too much on building expansions. They're also pushing back against proposals to cut pension benefits and allow hospitals more flexibility in switching nurses from one department to another.
Members voted last week to hold a one-day strike if a contract agreement isn't reached by June 1. The union says it could be the largest such strike in U.S. history.
Nurses Keep Working Instead of Retiring
Industry watchers say that nurse longevity in the wake of the recession is the other reason why nursing jobs are harder to find. Experienced nurses are staying at their jobs longer instead of retiring, and part-time nurses are taking full-time positions.
"We've got this bad economy. They need to keep working to support their families," said American Association of Colleges of Nursing spokesman Robert Rosseter.
Rosseter and others insist that the job outlook is still bright for nurses overall and that the decline in nursing jobs in some regions is only temporary. The health care sector has continued to add jobs throughout the recession, and experts predict that in the next 10 to 15 years, the country will experience a shortage of nurses that could range from 260,000 to more than 1 million.
For now, Rosseter recommends that recent nursing graduates expand their job searches to look beyond sought-after positions at hospitals and consider jobs at nursing homes, home health aid agencies and other businesses.
Job candidates also could look across state lines: Rosseter said that states like Texas, Missouri and North and South Dakota still face nursing shortages.
But not everyone is willing to travel. Some Minnesota nurse union members say they would never consider leaving their hospitals because conditions seem to be the same or worse elsewhere.
"The places that have the most trouble attracting and retaining nurses are places where conditions of care critically unsafe," said Nellie Munn, 33, a nurse at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. "Nurses feel tremendous guilt when they can't fill patient needs. I would never want to put myself in a situation like that."
Abdi, meanwhile, said she won't apply for jobs outside of Minnesota because she doesn't want to move away from her tight-knit Somali family, which immigrated to the U.S. before Abdi started college.
Abdi, who recently won St. Catherine's most prestigious award for graduating seniors, traces her passion for nursing to her childhood in Somalia, where she experienced the country's scarcity of health care resources.
Someday, she said, she wants to go back to her home country to provide medical care. But for now, she's concentrating on finding that elusive first job.
"I haven't lost hope," she said.