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Southern California Job Market : A Special Report On Employment Trends : Industries & Occupations : Nursing : Hospitals Struggle To Keep Staff

September 20, 1987|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | Times Staff Writer

After failing to attract nurses with classified advertising, United Western Medical Center of Santa Ana joined with six other hospitals and took to the airwaves last Sunday in an unusual television campaign to attract nursing help.

The seven facilities purchased a half-hour of television time on KCOP-TV (Channel 13) in Los Angeles for "around four figures," said Lucille Winklepleck, nurse recruiter for United Western. During the show, the hospitals showed slides of their facilities and touted the benefits of working as a nurse in Southern California.

Southern California's estimated 260 hospitals and other health-care providers are having to resort to innovative means to keep nurses on staff and to recruit new ones as they battle one of the most serious nursing shortages in U.S. history.

Joel M. Bergenfeld, chief executive of Century City Hospital, says that he has gone as far as Dublin, Ireland, and London in search of nurse recruits. And the Sherman Oaks office of Staff Builders/Tender Loving Care Inc., a temporary nursing service based in Lake Success, N.Y., is offering a free trip to Jamaica in order to recruit and keep nurses for its work force of 250 in Southern California, branch manager Robin Smith said.

"For the nurse in the job market right now, this is an ideal time," said Arthur Sponseller, who has studied the nursing shortage for the Hospital Council of Southern California, an industry trade group based in Los Angeles. "Hospitals and other health-care providers are having to increase pay and benefits because there are not enough nurses available."

There are no exact figures on the number of unfilled nursing positions in Southern California. Although the state's overall vacancy rate of 9% last year was lower than the 13.6% national rate, most of the openings are concentrated in Southern California, according to Sponseller.

Despite those figures, some analysts argue that there is a misallocation of nurses rather than an actual nursing shortage. More and more, they say, experienced nurses are leaving hospitals to work for temporary nursing services or physicians' offices or even in administrative health-care posts because such jobs often provide higher pay, less stress and more flexible working hours.

Still, the dearth of nurses has produced a lucrative seller's market for those with RN credentials, and has boosted full-time starting salaries to more than $25,000 today from $21,000 in 1984, according to industry analysts. But the nursing shortage is serious enough that experts advise job seekers to closely question their potential employer about work loads in order to avoid job stress and burnout.

"Look for the right match of job and interest," advised Sally Madden, a registered nurse at Orthopaedic Hospital and president of the Southern California Assn. of Nurse Recruiters. "They should, of course, ask what nurse to patient ratios are" at the facility.

The strong demand for registered nurses is in sharp contrast to the lackluster job market for hospital managers, who have been forced by industry cutbacks to seek work in allied health-care fields such as insurance, health maintenance organizations and nursing homes, according to a recent survey of 1,100 health administration graduates by the Assn. of University Programs in Health Administration in Arlington, Va.

In a massive restructuring this summer, Los Angeles-based National Medical Enterprises Inc.--one of the nation's largest hospital chains--divested seven subsidiaries, which accounted for 17% of its business. The seven units--which included the unprofitable National Medical Homecare of Orange--had 4,500 employees and about $500 million in sales in fiscal 1987.

Similarly, American Medical International Inc., Beverly Hills, sold off 15 acute-care hospitals, eliminated more than 2,000 jobs and closed its national insurance operations in the last 22 months.

The austere cost environment in the nation's $426-billion-a-year health-care industry, however, has produced a mixed outlook for technicians and clinical laboratory workers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted last year that there would be few openings for hospital technicians, and that those would stem mostly "from the need to replace experienced personnel." However, several hospital chains contacted by The Times indicated that hiring of technicians continues at a robust pace.

"The proliferation of new technology has created significant demand for technicians," said Herbert Phillips, senior vice president for administration at Louisville, Ky.-based Humana Inc., a giant hospital chain that owns five hospitals in Southern California. "Things like kidney lithotripters (an electronic device that crushes kidney stones with sonic waves), nuclear medicine (which relies on machines that take X-ray-like images of the human body) and highly specialized areas of cardiac care have all contributed" to demand for more technicians.

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