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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the October 2, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Career Opportunities In the Nursing Profession

Here’s a possible match. Thousands of technology, human

resources, and telecom professionals in New Jersey are out of work.

Many have a background in the sciences, while others have expertise

in communications and team building. A good number realize their old

jobs are gone forever as their industries shrink and/or do business

differently.

At the same time, says Barbara Tofani, director of the Center

for Nursing and Health Careers of the New Jersey Hospital Association

(NJHA), there is a critical shortage of nurses in the state. Downsized

professionals with intelligence and dedication might look into switching

to nursing. Along with the chance to make a real difference every

day, nursing offers a number of unusual advantages, including flexibility

unheard of in the corporate world. Three-day work week with full pay

anyone?

Tofani has organized a Nursing Job, Career, and Education Fair designed

to spread the word on nursing opportunities in New Jersey to nurses

and nursing students. But it will also offer an excellent opportunity

for career switchers to learn more about the profession. The fair

takes place on Monday, October 7, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the NJHA

Conference Center at 760 Alexander Road. The fair is free, but registration

is encouraged. Call 609-275-4113.

NJHA’s Center for Nursing and Health Careers is not quite one year

old. It was formed, says Tofani, after the association, the largest

health care trade organization in the state, asked hospital administrators

what issue kept them up at night.

"Workforce issues were number one," she reports. "We have

a 13 percent vacancy rate just in hospitals." More nursing slots

remain empty at nursing homes, extended care facilities, in home care,

and in any number of other medical settings. "By 2020," says

Tofani, "the vacancy rate will be 30 percent."

A nurse herself, Tofani says she has seen the effects of the nursing

shortage growing more serious over the past two years. Before signing

on to head up NJHA’s new Nursing Career Center, Tofani was an advanced

practice nurse in oncology at St. Peter’s University Hospital in New

Brunswick. A graduate of Villanova (1981), where she received a B.S.R.N.,

Tofani earned a master’s of science in nursing from Gwynedd Mercy

College in oncology clinical nursing.

Early in her career, she was especially touched by two of her patients,

and her experience with them led to her choice of oncology, an unusually

demanding specialty. One of these patients was a young woman who initially

had been misdiagnosed. By the time her cancer was diagnosed, she was

pregnant, and had to delay treatment. "She wasn’t much older than

me," Tofani recalls. In working with her, Tofani saw how a diagnosis

of cancer affects a whole family.

"Sometimes," she says, "the patient is the least needy

person. If parents are still alive, they are devastated. For the spouse

there is so much more responsibility." Children, of course, are

grief-stricken. In the case of the young mother, Tofani says, "even

if she lived five years, she was going to leave a very young child."

The second patient to affect Tofani, and clarify her career direction,

was one of her former teachers. "I had known her 15 years before,"

she says. "When I saw her again, our roles had reversed. It was

the turning point of my life. I realized I had become a true care

giver."

Tofani hastens to clarify that cancer is far from a death sentence,

but that the very word still has the power to terrify, and that, beyond

giving medical care, nurses educate patients and their families and

allay fear.

When they have time. Nursing shortages mean it is often not possible

to provide this support. This is especially true because the staffing

shortfall comes just as technology and managed cares are adding significantly

to a nurse’s duties.

"In the early 1980s, when I was starting out," recounts Tofani,

"we didn’t have nearly as many drugs and treatment options."

Now patients are routinely sent for MRIs, CAT scans, and PET scans.

Nurses explain the tests, get the patients ready to be transported

to them, and log them back in. Some patients are on literally dozens

of medications. Every test, every treatment, every dose of a drug

requires documentation. "There is a huge, huge documentation responsibility,"

says Tofani. "You don’t have enough time to do other things."

Nurses, Tofani says, know what they want to do, but can’t do it. "Every

day," she says, "nurses walk out the door saying `there’s

more I should have done.’"

The frustration contributes to nurse attrition in hospitals, sending

some nurses to pharmaceuticals, into nursing school, or to any number

of other industries eager to have them. Pay is a problem too. For

while starting salaries in hospitals — about $40,000 to $45,000

— are competitive, there is "salary compression," says

Tofani. A nurse with 20 years experience may make only a dollar or

two an hour more than a nurse straight out of school.

Still, nursing is a profession with a strong positive image. Every

single day brings any number of opportunities to make a tremendous

difference in people’s lives at the time when they are the most afraid

and vulnerable. It is also a profession with an unusually large number

of branches, each offering unique opportunities.

Tofani spends a great deal of time educating children and young adults

about the many facets of her profession. (Yes, she’s now an administrator,

but she is still foremost a nurse. "Once you’re a nurse,"

she says with feeling, "that’s your identity. You’re always a

nurse.") Nursing needs to cultivate enthusiasm among the "best

and brightest" students, she says, but is also wide open to career

changers.

The process. There are a number of programs specifically

tailored for college graduates who want to become nurses. Tofani mentions

those at Fairleigh Dickinson, Rutgers New Brunswick and Rutgers Newark,

and U.M.D.N.J. Generally, these programs take two years, but that

time can be cut substantially for those who have taken basic science

courses.

There are also nursing programs at hospitals and at community colleges.

For the most part, they do not require a bachelor’s degree.

The opportunities. There may be no other degree that opens

so many doors. Pharmaceuticals badly need nurses in several areas,

including clinical tests. Law firms hire nurses to decipher documents

in medical malpractice cases. Nurses assist in operations, offer genetic

counseling, provide in-home care, teach, deliver babies, operate complex

medical devices, run hospitals and other health care institutions,

and much more.

Hospitals routinely pay for advanced training, giving nurses the opportunity

to go as far as ambition takes them.

The perks. Nurses are in such hot demand that they can

pretty much write their own tickets, at least as far as their schedules

are concerned. "It’s a 24-hour environment," Tofani says.

Coupled with shortages, that means that "hospitals are offering

2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12-hour shifts." It is possible to work only on

weekends, three days a week, four days a week, or the traditional

five days a week.

Some nurses beef up their paychecks with overtime, but a new New Jersey

law, set to go into effect in January, ensures that they will not

be forced to work overtime, as is now sometimes the case.

The image. CEOs are joining lawyers as fodder for late

night television jokesters. Media types have been the objects of barbs

forever. Elected officials no longer enjoy a presumption of innocence.

But who can find anything negative to say about nurses?

Well, there was Meet the Parents, a the popular Robert DeNiro-Ben

Stiller comedy that used the male protagonist’s choice of nursing

as a running joke. Women in nursing are perceived as noble, and generally

smart and caring too. But nursing is sometimes seen as not too cool

for men.

Tofani says, however, that there are nearly twice as many male nurses

in New Jersey as in the country as a whole — 10 percent versus

5 percent. In her talks at schools around the state, she is working

to change the profession’s women-only image. Surveys, she says, show

that men are interested in technology and in career advancement. She

points out that nurses now use incredibly sophisticated technology

and that they can rise all the way to the top in health care, to top

administrative positions.

How about a name change? Drop `nurse’ for something with more of a

unisex sound? "I hear that once in a while," Tofani says.

"People point out that `stewardess’ was changed to `flight attendant’

and now 50 percent of flight attendants are men." It won’t happen

with nursing, though. "Nurses wouldn’t let it," says Tofani.

Nursing is a proud profession, and, for those downsized from

other industries, it has another plus. "Nursing is recession proof,"

says Tofani. Yes, there have been peaks and valleys of demand in the

past, but aging Baby Boomers should swell patient ranks to a level

that will ensure lots of nursing jobs for foreseeable future.


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