SANTA CRUZ -- The recession is putting a squeeze on a profession many thought was recession-proof: Nursing.
Kaiser Permanente, a health care provider with 22 percent of the market share in Santa Cruz County, announced in mid-August that 2 percent of its Northern California work force would be laid off due to the economic slowdown. Dominican Hospital has had zero staff growth over the past year and staff reductions in some areas. Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz has put construction of a new medical office building on Chanticleer Avenue on hold.
Statewide, about 40 percent of this year's nursing graduates haven't found a job, said David Lundberg, acting director of Workforce Santa Cruz County, which provides services to students, job-seekers and employers.
Yet people are still signing up for the wait list at Cabrillo College's training program for registered nurses, using their time during a tough economy to prepare for a projected boom in demand. It's a gamble that could pay off with a lucrative and rewarding profession for those who land a job.
But the current figures at CSU East Bay, which graduated 95 nurses in December and March, are daunting.
"Only 10-15 percent have jobs," said Kimberly Kim of CSU East Bay's Department of Nursing and Health Sciences. "I feel sorry for these new grads."
They face competition from experienced nurses who were working part-time or per diem, but want full-time work because their spouse has lost a job.
Some new graduates are going out of state, said Tom McKay, director of allied health and nursing at Cabrillo College, citing anecdotal evidence.
When the economy was booming, Cabrillo boosted enrollment in its two-year program from 40 to 60 students a year to address the demand for registered nurses in the area. McKay estimated in 2006 that it would take 10 years to ease the shortage.
"What we didn't count on was the economic downturn," McKay said.
But once the economy improves, McKay expects a flood of retirements.
"We plan to be ready for it," he said.
McKay is making nursing students aware of how health care is changing. The emphasis is shifting to nutrition, prevention and health information, all aimed at keeping people out of the hospital, so there are likely to be more jobs at community-based sites, such as clinics and outpatient surgery centers and as visiting nurses.
He is talking with CSU Monterey Bay about creating a bachelor's degree program in nursing. He also is working with the Santa Cruz County Workforce Investment Board, which receives federal funds to train workers, and other agencies to meet an Oct. 5 deadline for federal stimulus funds to provide a residency program with stipends for new nursing graduates.
This summer, the Workforce Investment Board allocated federal stimulus funds for summer internships for first-year nursing students at the request of the local hospitals, which were feeling the pinch of the recession. A total of 19 students participated.
"Without the federal money, it wouldn't have happened," said Catherine Lachance of Cabrillo's Fast Track to Work office, recalling how students gained confidence through that experience.
In Cabrillo's $500,000 lab, students practice on lifelike mannequins with simulated bodily functions. That prepares them to apply what they have learned in class at clinics and hospitals under the supervision of a registered nurse who serves as their role model and coach.
"No matter how many buildings we build or people we hire, we can only have as many students as we can get clinical rotations for," said Jill Gallo, allied health program coordinator.
Nursing is one of the best-paying occupations in Santa Cruz County. A 2008 survey of employers found the median pay for a newly hired, experienced nurse was $33 an hour. Pay in San Francisco is $42 an hour, with night shifts commanding up to $54 an hour.
It takes about two and a half to three years on the wait list to get into Cabrillo's nursing program. Success awaits those who get in, with 90 percent of graduates passing the licensing exam on their first try.
Cori Wilson, 21, a barista at Surf City Coffee, is among those waiting for a slot. She's using that time productively, studying psychology at UC Santa Cruz.
McKay declined to say how many are on the wait list, explaining that he doesn't want to discourage prospective students. Most people apply to more than one program, which increases attrition.
"It's not unusual to lose 100 names off the list from August to January," McKay said.
Waleed Helal, 34, of Aptos, decided to study nursing after getting guidance from Cabrillo's international counselor, Sally Larter. He came here from Egypt as a procurement administrator.
Married with two children, he saved up for college while working at the post office. During his two and a half years on the wait list, he took night classes to meet the program prerequisites.
The wait list initially was intimidating for Mary Crandall, 53, of Aptos, who earned a biology degree before becoming the mother of six children. But she decided to go for it.
"I always wanted to help people," she said.
She spent three years completing prerequisites and teaching math at an elementary school.
"The time went quickly," she said.
Though graduation is less than a year way, she isn't worried about the job market.
"These things come in cycles," she said. "There will always be a need for nursing."
First-year student Shira Morehead, 31, decided to pursue nursing after her first child was born at Sutter Maternity & Surgery Center. She previously worked in retail. Now her son is 6 and she has two more children, including one born May 11.
She expects the economy will improve by the time she completes the program. Her goal is to work in labor and delivery.
"I'm a little nervous but I'm hoping for a good outcome," she said.
OTHER JOB TRAINING
The Santa Cruz County Workforce Investment Board doubled its training budget to $1.7 million in June with federal stimulus funds.
People who have lost jobs and want training have two choices. They can either go to the Fast Track to Work office at Cabrillo College, where most of the programs offer one year of training. Those who want to pursue training at a location other than Cabrillo should go to the Watsonville Career Center.
Cabrillo's 'fill rates,' which compare enrollment to maximum class size, are up in real estate, digital media, criminal justice and accounting, down slightly in medical assisting, nursing, and construction management, and down 15 percent in dental hygiene.
For information, contact:
Fast Track to Work: 479-6344 or http://fasttracktowork.blogspot.com
Watsonville Career Center: 18 West Beach St., Watsonville. 763-8883.