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Nursing programs on the rise in Florida, Pinellas

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Published:   |   Updated: April 1, 2013 at 05:28 PM
PINELLAS PARK -

Nikki Green wants to devote her life to helping others, but that’s not the biggest reason why she’s spent the past three years studying to become a nurse at St. Petersburg College.

“Honestly, I’m in it for job stability,” said the 39-year-old. “I was a pastry chef in New York for years, but I chose this because you can always find a career as a nurse no matter what state you’re in.”

Plenty of others are making the same choice as Green, according to an economic impact study released last week by the Florida College System. About a sixth of the bachelor’s degrees that came out of the 28 state colleges last year were in nursing, and registered nurses topped the state’s list of online job postings in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields at the beginning of the year, accounting for almost a third of the 56,000 jobs.

The trend is evident at St. Petersburg College, where nursing students this year account for 1,500 of 59,000 enrolled at the school’s 10 campuses, said Dean of Nursing Susan Baker. The demand for nurses could also be reflected in new career programs at Pinellas County high schools and the Pinellas Technical Education Centers.

Boca Ciega High School and Palm Harbor University High School both offer students the opportunity to graduate high school and enter the field as nursing assistants, and school district officials are hoping to expand career training programs in middle and high schools over the next two years, as well as in the Pinellas Technical Education Centers.

PTEC already offers nursing assistant programs at both campuses, but school district officials would like to see them expanded, and plans are under way to equip each of the district’s 141 schools with STEM labs – preparing students to enter career programs such as nursing as early as elementary school.

While the exact career programs that will be created have yet to be finalized, the more opportunities to get students into medical professions, the better, School Board member Linda Lerner said.

“You know in the medical field you can get a job, and especially here in Pinellas County, if you can’t get a job in a hospital you can get one in a nursing home,” Lerner said. “The only barrier to expanding our nursing programs is that students would need to be able to have a practicum in the hospitals and nursing homes, and there are limited spaces … But we did have a limited number of high school students last year that were able to complete the program and become working nurses right out of school.”

There are about 25 hospitals and countless nursing homes in Pinellas County, which draws even more nursing students looking for hands-on experience. Last year, the state’s retention rate in nursing programs was 85 percent; at St. Petersburg College, the retention rate is 93 to 95 percent, Baker said.

“We get a huge influx of snow birds in the winter and it just increases our already large elderly population. We also have a large number of health care facilities in Pinellas County compared to other places of similar size, so there are plenty of job opportunities, now more then ever,” Baker said. The school graduated the second-highest number of nursing students in the state, after Miami-Dade College, during the 2010-11 school year – the most recent data available, according to the state Department of Education.

“With the downward turn in the economy, I think people went back to nursing, and so the job market waxes and wanes,” Baker said. “I think now we’re seeing another upswing where, because the economy is better, those people are going back to what they were doing before, so I think you’re going to be seeing more positions become available.”

Florida traditionally has struggled to fill empty nursing positions, said Jan Bush, general counsel for the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, partly due to what can be nurses’ grueling schedules and the lower pay they receive in Florida, compared to other states. In 2009, legislators passed a series of laws to change how nursing programs are overseen by the Florida Board of Nurses, which created more programs and helped equalize the supply and demand in the field.

“Since 2009, enrollment in nursing programs has increased by 54 percent, and 72 percent of students who graduated with a nursing license in 2010 are now employed in their field,” Bush said. “Not enough time has really elapsed to fully evaluate the effect the new law has really had on employment. … But the total number of nursing programs has increased by 104 percent, with 172 new programs.”

One of those new programs is at Schiller International University in Largo. The for-profit school with fewer than 200 students added a nursing program in 2012 to help the campus grow. About 50 students are enrolled in the program, but it has generated lots of interest and has plans to expand.

“We actually don’t have a limit at this point to the number of seats we have for students because the interest is growing, and not just in Florida but nationally” said the school’s director of nursing, Mark Roby. “Health care, in general, is looked at as a very stable and in-demand profession.”

For 44-year-old St. Petersburg College nursing student Dionne Stanley Reed, the possibilities nursing provides are abundant.

“I wanted to be a nurse years ago but then decided to pursue a career in business,” she said. “Then I had a son with special needs, and I spent so much time taking him to All Children’s Hospital that I decided I might as well get in the field.

“There are so many hospitals here. I’m able to shift my schedule around to take him to appointments. I can work nights and pick which schedule or place works for me. I love that I’m able to give that care that he received back to other people.”


adawson@tampatrib.com

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Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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