The unemployment rate continues to rise all across the country, yet there is still a labor shortage in a key health-care profession: nursing.
Orlando-area schools are trying to meet the need by training as many nurses as possible and by partnering with hospitals and governments to retain as many others as they can. But the shortage is still about the pipeline as much as it is the supply: Statewide, schools turned away more than 12,000 qualified applicants in 2007 and 2008 combined.
That's not the only sobering statistic.
The Florida Center for Nursing estimates that the Sunshine State will have a shortage of more than 18,400 nurses by next year — and more than 52,200 a decade from now.
More people are pursuing nursing careers — the center reports a 24 percent increase in the number of graduates from registered-nursing programs during the past year alone. But the shortage will persist.
"Our take on this increase is that it's probably not sustainable," said Jennifer Nooney, the center's associate director of research, citing a decline in the number of full-time faculty available to teach incoming students.
The center's data show that the increase in graduates came primarily from associate-degree programs, not baccalaureate or graduate studies. And enrollment is falling among graduate students pursuing academic tracks that would lead to full-time jobs in nursing education.
The current recession is likely to take its toll as government agencies chop their budgets to offset falling tax revenue.
"We have heard anecdotally that some of the funding coming for nursing education from work-force development programs — grants — may not be available in the future," Nooney said.
As a result, nurses continue to be in great demand.
Prospects are 'endless'"The prospects, I believe, are just endless," said Paula Pritchard, interim dean of the Bethune-Cookman University School of Nursing in Daytona Beach, Florida.
About 185 students are currently enrolled in B-CU's program, which will celebrate its centennial in 2011. Nontraditional students — those returning to school after other careers or at advanced ages — constitute about 10 percent of the nursing school's student body.
"We have a 75-year-old matriculating in our program right now," said Pritchard, who said the student already had a master's degree in developmental education but came back to school because she really wants to be a nurse.
"She's a good student," Pritchard said.
The Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences in Orlando offers associate, bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing, as well as programs in other medical specialties such as radiography, nuclear-medicine technology and occupational therapy.
Valencia Community College's west campus in Orlando offers a nursing program that culminates in an associate degree. Programs at Florida Southern College in Lakeland and the University of Central Florida are more comprehensive, offering bachelor's and graduate degrees in nursing as well as specialty certificates.
Keeping nurses at homeBoosting the number of graduates is important, academic and health-care officials say, but it's also critical that such students remain in the region — or at least in the state — once they graduate, to meet the ever-growing need for nurses.
Not much data is available on how many local nursing graduates remain in Central Florida. About 75 percent of Bethune-Cookman's nursing graduates remain in the state, and about 90 percent of those work in acute-care facilities.
"Even many of our students who have come from different countries stay here," Pritchard said.
When salary isn't enough to keep nurses from moving on, industry experts have sought other ways to increase nurses' satisfaction with their jobs, lifestyles and places they live.
NurseTogether.com is one such effort. The Orlando-based Internet site offers nurses support and access to job opportunities, additional education and other information.
Popular features of the year-old site include job listings, articles on work/life balance, and forum discussions about what to do during off-hours in different cities. Nurses from more than 70 countries currently use the site.
"One of the things we realized was that, when nurses went online, there was information for them about medical sourcing but nothing really on the lifestyle of nurses," said Randy Holloran, a veteran health-care recruiting and staffing executive who is founder and chief operating officer of NurseTogether LLC.
Even as nursing programs work to catch up to current demand, Orlando's health-care sector is growing in significant areas, some with worldwide marketing potential.
On a recent trade mission to Dubai, for example, the region's economic-development officials touted the fast-growing medical complex in southeast Orlando where a Burnham Institute for Medical Research lab, a Nemours Children's Hospital, a VA hospital and a medical school for the University of Central Florida are under construction in the Lake Nona area.
In Dubai, "they're trying to build their level of health care up to where ours is already," said Jennifer Wakefield, a spokeswoman for the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission, which organized the trip.
Even Holloran is adding to the demand locally for nurses with his support-network Web site.
He said he expects to expand his team of eight in the next several months, and he's hoping to find people with experience in information technology — and, yes, nursing.
Anika Myers Palm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5022.