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Nursing shortage could end sooner than forecast

Stress and burnout may be driving some nurses into retirement, but there’s no reluctance to get into the profession, say North Bay area college officials.

“We got roughly double the applications we normally get,” said Robert Harris, senior dean, health and safety programs at Napa Valley College.

More than 200 applicants are competing for 40 available spots in the group that begins in January, he said. There are a total of 80 spots available for the entire two-year associate degree program.

According to a UCSF study released in August, registered nursing school enrollments in the state “are projected to surpass pre-pandemic levels during the 2022-2023 academic year, which will lead to a closing of the shortage by 2026.”

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing has previously projected a shortage of nurses spreading across the country between 2016 and 2030, citing a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Medical Quality.

Harris said the spike in nursing applicants at the Napa college isn’t related to the 18-month-long pandemic crisis.

That’s because applicants must already possess a certified nursing assistant license, have completed all prerequisite courses, which can take two years, and submit an aptitude test score of at least 64%. Selections are made based on these requirements and on a first-come, first-served basis, he said.

Harris noted he isn’t surprised to see more people interested in entering the nursing industry.

“Nursing is a well-respected profession, it pays well and there’s lots of openings,” Harris said.

And those vacancies have only been worsened by the pandemic.

“The COVID pandemic has taken its toll on a lot of nurses in the in the clinical setting, as well as in the educational setting, and it's been a real challenge,” Harris said. “Nursing is a profession that requires a lot of dedication and it takes its toll on people, and especially in a situation like this.”

Even so, Harris said he has seen just a handful of students either leave the program or defer starting their studies, either because of family pressures related to COVID-19 or other life stressors.

At Santa Rosa Junior College, Katherine Morena Magee, interim associate dean, associate degree nursing program said, “I haven't experienced significant attrition of students leaving because of COVID, and I was expecting that we would have a lot of withdrawals.” Students who have left the program have done so more for personal reasons than because of COVID-19, she added.

SRJC has the capacity to accept 240 students into its two-year associate degree in nursing program, Magee said. That breaks down to 120 applicants twice a year — 60 groups each for the fall and spring semesters.

Magee said she is in the beginning stages of the review process that ends in early February, so she can’t yet tell how many people have applied, but the program generally gets between 400 and 450 applications for 120 spots. About 300 of those applicants qualify and are then entered into a lottery. “We fill all of our spots every semester,” she said.

And the majority of those applicants aren’t newly minted high school graduates.

“Our age demographic is actually between 25 and 50,” Magee said. “And we have a good amount of people who are in their second or third careers,” roughly in their late 50s to early 60s.

Is it possible, though, that more people are applying to nursing school because they see a greater chance of landing a job, given the mass exodus within the industry?

“There could be some truth in job availability as a factor for applying to nursing school. The job market is now, and anticipated to be, robust for the next 15 years in the Bay Area — related to both the ongoing shortage and the shortages created by the pandemic,” Magee said. “From the perspective of the SRJC nursing program, I really believe that the students who decide to pursue nursing are very committed to the work that nurses do — caring and advocating for vulnerable community populations to achieve their best health potential — and would be applying regardless of the job market.”

Those enrolling in Touro University’s nursing programs can pursue associate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees, as well as a number of certifications, said Ann Stoltz, who co-heads Touro’s nursing programs and is one of the founders.

But what she is seeing lately are more applications for the Vallejo university’s bachelor’s and master’s degree programs, which requires applicants to already be working nurses. Touro currently has between 10 and 15 applications for the advanced degree programs, compared to the more typical five applications per cycle, she said.

“I think nurses are looking for other things they can do to give them more opportunities for advancement,” Stoltz said, noting public health and leadership roles as examples. “They can still be nurses, but they also can do something other than patient care.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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