A nurse draws blood from a donor at blood drive.

Sarah Gardner: Ever found yourself stuck in a hospital bed, pushing that little "help" button and then waiting... waiting... waiting for a nurse? That's when all the headlines about a "nursing shortage" in this country hit home, right?

And if the forecasts are right, we could be short hundreds of thousands of nurses in the next decade. So you might be surprised to hear some nurses complaining about underemployment right now.

We asked reporter Annie Baxter to examine that seeming contradiction -- and here's her diagnosis.


Annie Baxter: A few years ago, Marc Anders decided to make a big career change. He was ready to don a nurse uniform, and throw in the bartending towel he'd sported for years.

Marc Anders: I was just not a very happy person when I was working with that many drunk people I guess. It takes a lot of tolerance and takes a lot out of you.

Anders thought nursing would allow him to do something better for society than serving up cocktails. But he was also motivated by dollar signs. When his sister-in-law left nursing school in the early 2000s, she was greeted with multiple job offers and signing bonuses.

That sounded pretty good to Anders. So he started a two-year nursing program in 2008. And he was surprised to hear soon thereafter that hiring was tapering off. Landing a nursing job could be harder than he thought.

Baxter: Did that give you pause at all when you were in the middle of your program?

Anders: I just knew it was going to take more time.

He just didn't anticipate how much more time. A year and a half after completing his degree in Minneapolis, he's still looking for full-time work.

He's 42 now and has a part-time gig as a nurse at a long-term care facility. He makes about $25 an hour, and supplements that income by still pulling bartending shifts on the side.

But a lot of his time is spent as a stay-at-home dad while his wife works. Their daughter Daphne's six months old and their son Quinn's four.

Anders: Where'd we go on the bike?

Quinn: To the zoo!

Anders: To the zoo? Nice.

Anders really likes being home with the kids, but he wants to be working more hours -- and at a hospital. He hopes that after a year at the long-term care facility, he'll be a better candidate for one of those hospital jobs. They typically pay a few bucks more an hour than what he's earning now.

Anders' wife, Dana DeMaster, says in the meantime they mostly get by on her salary as a research analyst with the state of Minnesota. But the family isn't saving for retirement. DeMaster is tired of explaining Marc's situation to friends who think hospital jobs are easy to come by.

Dana DeMaster: You go places out with people, and they're like, "Oh, Marc doesn't have a full time job yet? I thought there was really demand." Or, "What do you mean? Shouldn't there be tons of jobs out there?" And having to explain again and again and again that no, there's really not.

David Auerbach: So you're getting a lot of new nurses coming out of school into a market where some of them are having trouble finding jobs, which is a very unusual phenomenon historically.

David Auerbach is a health economist with the RAND Corporation. He says there are a few reasons for this weird historical moment: Over the past decade, nursing schools just about doubled the number of grads they produced. Then the recession hit. Fewer people were able to afford health care, which reduced demand for nurses. At the same time, the lousy economy prompted a lot of nurses to delay retirement.

Auerbach: That means there's about more than 100,000 nurses that are in the workforce now who otherwise probably would've retired by now.

Auerbach feels pretty confident that older nurses will step aside in the next few years, and loads of nursing jobs will open up again. And there's the prospect that federal reform could add millions more patients into the health care system. That would mean a greater need for nurses.

Marc Anders is trying to stay optimistic about those prospects.

Anders: That demand isn't going to go away. People aren't going to stop being sick.

But his wife Dana offers a sharper warning to people considering the nursing field.

DeMaster: In the long run, I think it's a good choice that we made. But in the short run, if you're unemployed and you need to pay the bills, don't think you're going to go to a two-year nursing program and come out and have the answer.

Sound of Daphne crying

DeMaster: Yeah, Dapher, you tell 'em.

For now, Anders thinks the answer might be a four-year nursing degree. He's considering going back to school this fall. He hopes the additional training will land him the nursing job he wants.

In St. Paul, Minn., I'm Annie Baxter for Marketplace.

About the author

Annie Baxter is a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio.

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