Byline: Sarah Skidmore, Times-Union business writer
Hundreds of local nursing students walked off the stage with much more than their diplomas this month.
Employers, desperate to hire during a long-term nursing shortage, gave some of them signing bonuses, lunches and even cruises to woo them into employment.
Unlike other recent graduates during the slowing economy, these potential employees are confident in their ability to find a job.
Health care employers continue to struggle after several years of a nursing shortage that industry experts say is only going to get worse. The U.S. Department of Labor predicted the need for nurses will increase by 21 percent between 1998 and 2010. The Florida Hospital Association predicts in Florida the demand for registered nurses alone will increase 29.3 percent in the next decade.
Because of an aging population, the need for nurses is increasing when the number of qualified graduates is low.
"The desperation kind of shows in some of their voices when they are interviewing," said Teresa Baum, who graduated from University of North Florida last week. "You almost can't blame them; there aren't enough employees to go around."
Poor pay and even poorer conditions during the past several years dissuaded those considering nursing from entering the field. But now, those who followed the career path are sometimes more richly rewarded then they thought possible.
Rachael Crook, who graduated Wednesday from Florida Community College at Jacksonville, and other students in the area said most hospitals offered $2,500 signing bonuses, cruises, lavish meals, tuition reimbursement and other perks to listen to their presentation or join the hospital.
"You hear about bonuses for athletes and you never think you're going to get one as a nurse," said Baum. "That's not why you go into it."
Other enticements included specialized training, expanded benefits packages and increased salaries.
According to a Florida Hospital Association report, starting salaries for two common specialties, medical/surgical and critical care registered nurses, increased about 11 percent between 1995 and 2000 in Florida. Critical care RNs on average earned $31,262 and medical/surgical RNs $30,118 in 2000.
"In general, Jacksonville is very competitive for competent nurses," said Donna Kalkines, nurse recruitment coordinator for St. Luke's Hospital.
"I think we are feeling the pressure," said Tom Finn, also a nurse recruitment coordinator at St. Luke's. St. Luke's and the Mayo Clinic hired 95 nurses in one month between March and April, following an open house, but continue to look for more.
"We feel very fortunate," Kalkines said.
Officials from area hospitals said that bonuses and salaries they may have offered depended upon the candidate, and they declined to discuss specific packages.
Lynne Nowotny, who graduated last week from Jacksonville University and is state president of the Student Nursing Association, said employers are courting the new nursing graduates across Florida.
She said the situation in Florida is no worse than the rest of the nation. In other states, hospitals offered maid and lawn service to lure nurses. …