Lawana Rhodan applied more than two years ago to Trident Technical College's nursing program. On Tuesday, she finally enrolled.
"It's something I always wanted to do," said Rhodan, who earned a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of South Carolina in 1996.
Nursing remains an attractive career for its job security, but in the Lowcountry, the recession may be cooling the recruitment frenzy that swept the country with promotions such as flat-screen TVs and shopping sprees.
The days of signing bonuses appear to be gone. But experts continue to worry about the forecast of an aging population and shrinking pool of nurses.
"When the economy is like it is, nurses still get jobs, but they may have to take an off shift," said Muriel Horton, dean of Trident Technical College's Nursing Division.
"Because of the economy, nurses don't want to move around as much. They're settling in and staying at one hospital," said the chief nursing officer of Trident Health System, Cheryl Goforth. The hospital system has 10 open positions for specialty nurses, and 30 nurses on a waiting list for other positions.
Reduced turnover and nurses choosing to delay retirement are resolving the shortage to some degree, she said.
Gail Stuart, dean of the Medical University of South Carolina's College of Nursing, said the ferocity of recruitment has fizzled as recently as the last six months. In May 2008, Charleston Southern University's 19 nursing graduates were wooed with sign-on bonuses, specialty units and whatever shift they wanted, said Tara Hulsey, dean of Derry Patterson Wingo School of Nursing.
More recently, talk of sign-on bonuses has quieted. Trident's Horton said that while recruiters are still eager to meet students, she has not heard of any sign-on bonuses.
"The competitiveness has decreased," Stuart said. But that doesn't mean there's an excess of nurses.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts about 233,000 additional jobs will open for registered nurses each year through 2016, on top of about 2.5 million existing positions. But only about 200,000 candidates passed the Registered Nurse licensing exam last year, and thousands of nurses leave the profession each year.
Factors converging to create the shortage include: a lack of qualified instructors to staff training programs, lack of funding for training programs, difficult working conditions and the need for expertise in many key nursing positions.
And the recession is not solving these problems, said Marilyn J. Schaffner, Medical University Hospital's administrator for clinical services and chief nursing executive. "We are still in a nursing shortage. We don't have enough faculty to increase volume," she said.
Nurses get paid less to teach than work in clinical settings, making teaching an unappealing prospect. That, in turn, bottlenecks students.
Lisa Irvin, vice president of nursing at Roper Hospital, said, "The Southeast is projected to have a deficit for the next 20 years." While Roper's vacancy is the lowest it's been in years, Irvin said, "We don't need to get lulled into thinking we have all our needs met."
The massive wave of baby boomers is aging, and more people are living longer with multiple chronic conditions. Also on the horizon are more uninsured people, as medical costs soar and insurance rates rise.
"We know we're going to need a greater force than we have now," Stuart said.
And students are lining up to answer that call. "Applications are as strong as ever," Stuart said. About 250 applicants are competing for 60 registered nurse program slots.
Other area programs also report strong enrollment. Rhodan will join the 530 students enrolled in Trident Tech's nursing program, which tracks several nursing diplomas, including nursing assistants and practical nurses. About 1,400 pre-nursing students are awaiting placement, Horton said.
At CSU, Hulsey expects more than 150 students to apply in March for 40 slots.
The students applying are more diverse, too, area deans report. More second-degree students, more men, and older students, point to second careers for many.