Nurses Amy Chang, left, Ryan Cavada and Natasha Pyykko chat in a room in an… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)
Lauren Mills' counselor in college pushed her to consider nursing. She heeded the advice, graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 2007 and now works with cardiac patients at an Orange County hospital. It's proved a challenging and gratifying choice, said Mills, now 27.
"You are using your brain and in a way you are using your heart too," she said. "You feel good when you go home. You feel you made a difference."
Increasing numbers of women like Mills are helping swell the ranks of registered nurses, easing chronic shortages in both California and the nation, according to a study released Monday by the Rand Corp.
Nationwide, the number of registered nurses ages 23 to 26 grew from 102,000 in 2002 to 165,000 in 2009, according to the study. The current cohort of young nurses is expected to be the largest ever, the study said.
If the trend continues, there may be enough nurses by 2030 to meet the projected needs of aging baby boomers and the expansion of the healthcare system, researchers said.
"Compared to where nursing supply was just a few years ago, the change is incredible," said David Auerbach, lead author of the study. "If it keeps going, it turns everything on its head and it's a major revolution."
California has seen an even more dramatic rise in the number of new nurses, said Joanne Spetz, a professor at the Institute for Health Policy Studies at UC San Francisco. "We are seeing a lot of young people entering the field, which is fabulous. These are the people we need to be moving into the nursing workforce."
More than 11,500 people graduated from California nursing schools in 2010, up from 5,300 in 2002, according to a report Spetz did for the California Board of Registered Nursing. Much of that is due to a concerted effort by hospitals, foundations and policymakers to expand nursing school slots, she said.
Researchers previously predicted that the U.S. could be short as many as 400,000 registered nurses by 2020. In California, experts believed that the state could see a shortage of about 89,000 by 2030.
Mills, who lives in Newport Beach, said she feels lucky to have found nursing because it uses her math and science skills but also lets her work with people in a very intimate way. The job pays well, she said, though "sometimes we don't get paid enough for some of the days we have."
Melissa Ingkom, 31, a nurse practitioner, visits elderly patients in their homes and helps them manage their diseases and medications. Ingkom, who lives in Sherman Oaks, decided to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a nurse.
"It was kind of chosen for me," she said. "I ended up liking it and have stuck with it."
In a rocky economy, some are turning to nursing as a second career.
After getting laid off from her job as a legal secretary, Suzie Cyger, 52, enrolled in a one-year program at Mount St. Mary's College in August. Cyger said she hopes to be an operating room nurse but first has to get through the program. "The training is pretty rigorous," she said.
Many are drawn to the profession because of job stability, said Rand researcher Auerbach.
Nevertheless, jobs still can be hard to come by in some places. Older nurses are postponing retirement and more uninsured people aren't seeking care. Last year, there were 6,500 open positions in California and 7,700 registered nurses looking to fill them, according to Spetz.
Michelle Panlilio, 33, became a nurse in 2001 and went back to school, earning a master's degree in nursing from UCLA in 2005. She works as a researcher in Encino, conducting clinical trials for medications. Panlilio said she thought the advanced degree would give her an edge in today's job market.
"I wanted to become a nurse practitioner to become more marketable," she said.