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Talk to any health care professional about the so-called "looming nursing shortage" and they're likely to be familiar with it.

Registered nurse Chris Olson said it's a very real problem and it is, indeed, looming.

"The average (age) of a nurse right now is about 47," said Olson, who also holds a masters of science in nursing degree. "Nursing is a very physical job. There are too many nurses who will be retiring in the near future and not enough to replace them."

Healthcare professionals have said an aging workforce in conjunction with increasingly specialized treatment options and a growing emphasis on preventive care are some of the driving forces behind the shortage. Patients are ultimately those who suffer most as a result, Olson said.

Olivia Grassmann, a native of Wauwatosa, who will graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's College of Nursing in May, said she chose to enter the nursing profession because she felt called to make a difference in the lives of others.

Grassmann said there's a lot of turnover in some areas of the field because nurses are dissatisfied with working conditions, patient loads and benefits.

"I've heard many nurses say that they feel they cannot provide high quality patient care because they are expected to do too many things at once, and are stretched too thin," she said.

Healthcare occupations were projected to have the fastest employment growth between 2014 and 2024, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in December. Jobs for registered nurses with a baccalaureate degree are projected to increase by 16 percent, according to the labor department.

Area schools step up

Wauwatosa, an economic hub in southeastern Wisconsin, is not shying away from the shortage; two local schools — Mount Mary University and Bryant and Stratton College's Wauwatosa campus — have each added bachelor of science in nursing degree programs to their lineups.

Carroll University in Waukesha plans to build a $20 million building for its nursing, physics, engineering and science programs. The building will reportedly provide space for the school's nursing program, which has outgrown some of its current spaces, among other things.

Olson was instrumental in assisting with the preparation of the nursing program proposal at Mount Mary University, 2900 Menomonee River Parkway. She will teach a number of classes in the new program this fall.

Mount Mary's program is an RN to BSN completion program, so all of its students (the school hopes to enroll between 35 and 50 by the time the program launches in the fall semester) would already be licensed RNs, Olson said. Creators of the program hope its graduates will be better prepared for leadership positions in the profession. BSNs can earn a $69,000 salary while RNs earn a median of $39,100, according to the school.

Cheryl Bailey, dean of the School of Natural and Health Sciences at Mount Mary, said the school chose to add the leadership-focused degree program after learning from hospitals and national studies about the need for nurses.

"If you look at indeed.com or any type of search for employment and you put in 'nurse,' there are multiple listings and some of them have been there for a while," Bailey said. "Even driving down the highway, you'll see billboards that say, 'We're hiring nurses now.'"

Hospitals speak out

It's a competitive market for anyone with a nursing degree — whether they're a new graduate or an experienced nurse, said Sue Abler, an executive director of human resources at Froedtert Health.

"We can feel, as an employer, that the shortage is looming and that it's a very competitive market," she said. "Froedtert Health is prepared for this and has been planning for this coming shortage for probably two to three years."

Abler said those choosing to enter the profession realize the degree opens many doors and serves as a "solid career decision."

"The starting pay is excellent," she said. "There's many intrinsic rewards about being a nurse. The ability to impact somebody's life, I mean, that is nursing."

Earlier this month, Abler said Froedtert Health looked to hire 286 registered nurses across its health system, accounting for about 32 percent of its total openings.

"That gives you a sense of the demand in our health care system," she said, noting that growth within the company contributed to a higher number of jobs.

Turning to nursing

For nursing students about to enter the field full-time, the shortage is anything but a deterrent.

Nursing student Jay Romant, 43, of Wauwatosa, said returning to school to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree was a difficult decision to make as he's a busy husband and father of two young girls.

"I'm one of the old guys in my class," he said.

Romant previously worked as a chiropractor and although he called it "an amazing profession," there wasn't a huge infrastructure for it, he said. Most chiropractors run their own practices, or, if they don't, they need to be crafty at angling into other positions, he said. Romant, who has experience in both situations, said the allure of nursing encouraged him to switch career paths.

"The reason why I'm in nursing is because it fits perfectly into my health care experience as far as caring for patients, but it opens new doors in the medical world," he said.

Plus, there's plenty of jobs.

"Most hospital systems do hire some chiropractors, but it's not (like) when you look at a hospital and every floor is staffed with dozens of nurses," he said. "Just the shear volume of opportunity for nurses is exponential."

While it may require odd hours or it may not be in the unit of their choice, it seems to be a common thread that future nurses are not losing sleep over landing their first post-graduate job.

"Given the shortage, I figured if I pursued a degree in nursing, I would never be without a job," said Laura DeWitt, a nursing student at UWM. "Our professors use this information to encourage us. They remind us that as bachelors-prepared nurses, we must be ready to serve as leaders in the clinical environment, as well as the community."

DeWitt, a Wauwatosa resident, said she turned to nursing after watching her own grandmother's journey in the hospital and the compassionate care she received.

While the shortage is not explicitly discussed at her clinical locations, unit managers do strive to recruit students early on if they seem to be a good fit, said DeWitt.

"I do believe it is a field with strong job security," she said. "This is especially true during the shortage. If you have a solid educational background, appear to be an individual of integrity, seem to be a good fit for the unit, and are eager to learn and be trained, it seems like many places are ready and willing to hire."

Despite the obstacles, Grassman said she's "so excited to graduate and start working as a nurse."

"I don't think I'll have any issues finding a job right after graduation, however it may not be the exact unit or shift I want — but I'll definitely be able to find a job, which I'm so thankful for."

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