Viviana Bernal entered Cal State L.A. several years ago looking to brighten her future. The plan was to earn a bachelor's degree in health science and then get a job in community health.
Bernal, now 24, has her degree, but after months of intense searching, she's yet to land a job.
So, it's time for Plan B: nursing school.
"I've studied the labor trends and there is going to be a big need for nurses in the near future, so the chances of failure will be pretty small," Bernal said.
Currently, the job market for nurses is tight, but demand for everything from nurses to physicians to billing clerks is expected to pick up dramatically in the next few years.
From bust to boom
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the healthcare field is expected to generate 3.2 million new jobs between 2008 and 2018 — more than any other industry in the country. Driving the spike in demand are two primary factors: America's aging population and the 2010 comprehensive healthcare legislation, which will bring into the healthcare system 32 million previously uninsured Americans, according to a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine.
Today, good nursing jobs are harder to come by. However, just the opposite was true only a few years ago, when the nation grappled with a severe shortage of nurses and qualified candidates were able to call their own shots.
Experts said that as the economy picks up and baby boomer nurses are able to retire, the bust will once more become a boom.
"What we're being told is that the nursing shortage will return with a tremendous vengeance," said Loucine "Lucy" Huckabay, director of the School of Nursing at Cal State Long Beach.
California alone is expected to need another 100,000 nurses by 2015. Huckabay said the aging population and healthcare reform will also make available new types of opportunities.
One area will be prevention-focused careers, said Mary Molle, the Mount St. Mary's College Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair for Nursing Partnerships in the Community. Healthcare reform mandates a new model of healthcare that puts a strong emphasis on prevention as a way to keep the population healthy.
Beatrice Yorker, dean of the College of Health and Human Services at Cal State L.A., agreed that as baby boomers head toward their twilight years, professionals specializing in aging and gerontology will be in hot demand.
This evolving world of healthcare will also make room for computer geeks.
"The health information technology field is a completely different aspect of healthcare, but one that is really exploding," Molle said, suggesting it as a good option for those who are technically minded.
Los Angeles-area colleges and universities offer a variety of nursing programs at all levels. Some of these programs can be completed in as little as one year while others may require many years of training beyond graduate school.
Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles offers five nursing degrees that range from an associate's degree to the traditional bachelor and master of science degrees.
The school also recently launched a new bachelor's degree program in healthcare policy aimed at those who want to work with government agencies, the pharmaceutical industry, lobbying organizations and advocacy groups.
Accelerated programs are designed for those who want to join the workforce as quickly as possible. Cal State Long Beach, for example, offers a bachelor's degree in nursing that allows students to complete course work in two years (instead of the traditional three) by attending 12-week summer sessions in addition to the fall and spring semesters.
Many programs, such as the associate's degree program at Mount St. Mary's, offer evening and weekend courses designed for the working professional.
Bernal said that she will be making a "big sacrifice" by going back to school, but she still thinks it's a good idea and Huckabay agreed.
"For those people who are not able to find jobs right away, this is a golden opportunity for them to continue their education," she said.
—Anne Burke, Custom Publishing Writer