In the midst of a nationwide nursing shortage, some hospitals Outside have gone to great lengths to recruit new personnel -- from hiring highly skilled (and high-priced) "traveling nurses" from agencies, to importing beginning nurses from poorer nations overseas.
In Alaska, however, finding new nurses can be as easy as showing up at the next University of Alaska Anchorage commencement and reviewing the latest list of graduates from its School of Nursing.
Since 2000, UAA has more than doubled its number of nursing graduates, from 71 in 2000 to an average of 192 the past two years.
Health care officials here say that's eased the nursing shortage in large Alaska hospitals and small rural clinics alike -- while also giving would-be nurses a way to earn a degree in-state, where a college education is usually more accessible and affordable.
Faculty shortages at UAA continue to force would-be nursing school students here to play the waiting game, but once they get admitted and graduate, Alaska hospitals appear eager to hire them, even with the dismal economy.
"I haven't really been too concerned about not being able to get a job," says UAA senior Cindy Crain, who's set to earn her bachelor's degree in nursing this spring.
The latest help-wanted ads might explain why. There are currently 125 openings for nurses at Providence Alaska Medical Center -- the state's largest hospital -- and about a third that many at both Alaska Regional Hospital and the Alaska Native Medical Center, hiring officials say.
That's a vacancy rate of roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of the nursing workforce, which isn't that bad, according to Alaska Regional staff recruiter Brenda Wells. Some hospitals in the Lower 48 are currently hovering in the 20-percent range.
Wells credits the difference to UAA nursing school graduates. Last year Alaska Regional hired 26 of them -- newly licensed RNs valued both for their local experience as well as the savings the hospital achieves by not having to pay relocation fees for Lower 48 nurses.
"They've done their clinicals with us, and they're a known commodity," Wells said. "I almost never hire a new grad from out of state."
UAA GRADUATES LAND JOBS
The same is true at Providence and the Native medical center. About 40 of the 50 nurses Providence hired last year and all but one or two of 25 new nurses the Native hospital hired last year were from UAA, according to a UAA survey.
"What we hear from students is that they're getting jobs," says Jean Ballantyne, director of the UAA School of Nursing. "We ask where they intend to work and the large majority -- I'm talking 90 percent plus -- tell us they're going to take a first job in Alaska."
That's true for Crain, who hopes to land a position at the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, close to her home in Wasilla. And it's also true for fellow seniors Karin Evans and Cassie Fink.
Evans, a 40-year-old mother of three who worked previously as an elementary school teacher, particularly enjoyed her operating room experience at the Native hospital and hopes to develop that expertise for herself in Alaska, where there is a chronic shortage of trained OR nurses.
Fink, a 23-year-old Wasilla High grad and University of Alaska scholarship winner, just emerged from her senior group project with a new-found interest in public health nursing, which she'd like to pursue in Anchorage.
Her senior project, along with Crain, Evans and five other students, was to study local prostitutes as they try to change their lives through the Mary Magdalene Home Alaska.
"It was the biggest thing I've ever accomplished," Fink said. "It was probably the favorite thing I've done in school."
The decade-long expansion of the UAA nursing school is big too, having rippled out far beyond Anchorage.
Instructors now staff 11 other Alaska communities that participate in a distance-learning program that leads to a two-year Associate in Applied Science degree in nursing. Getting one enables graduates to apply for a license as a registered nurse.
Half of all of UAA's nursing grads in the associate's program now receive their degree somewhere other than Anchorage through distance learning, Ballantyne says.
"They have their education there because they have family ties to their area. ... (and) a large majority are seeking a job in their home community."
That's good news for rural centers that can now grow their own nurses through the distance-learning model -- a list that now includes Kotzebue, Fairbanks, Bethel, Palmer-Wasilla, Kenai, Homer, Kodiak, Valdez, Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan. Waiting their turn to join the group too are Barrow, Nome, Dillingham and Petersburg.
But there's a catch.
The university first has to find someone in each prospective community who can serve as a faculty member to oversee the students in their lab work, Ballantyne says. And faculty members who teach nursing are harder to find than the nurses themselves.
"You've heard about a nationwide nursing shortage? There's also a nationwide faculty shortage," she said. "So another goal is to try to bring more people back to school to become involved as nurse educators."
Without them, UAA is caught in a double-bind of wanting to grow its nursing school -- having set as a near-term goal 250 graduates a year -- but having to turn students away for want of teachers. Right now the nursing school has seven faculty openings, Ballantyne said.
Four years ago, a similar problem resulted in onerous, two-year-long waiting lists for students to gain admittance to UAA's baccalaureate nursing program midway through college. Now the wait is down to about 12 to 18 months, Ballantyne said.
The improvement is welcome, said Evans, the nursing student with three children. But it's still the biggest negative in the program, a kind of pause button that turns a four-year degree into a five-year slog.
While she was waiting to be accepted after having completed all the prerequisite courses, Fink went traveling for a year and worked some odd jobs. Crain went to work in the Valley as a $7-an-hour medic, specifically to gain experience in emergency medicine.
"I really want to do E.R. and critical care, so that kind of outside-of-the-hospital experience actually helped me," she said.
All three students said they would prefer a college that didn't force students to stand in line to attend classes, but UAA was easily the least costly option.
"It would be too expensive to go out of state for me," Crain said. Said Evans of UAA: "It's very affordable."
Find George Bryson online at adn.com/contact/gbryson or call 257-4318.
By GEORGE BRYSON