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Opportunities for LPNs dry up (at least for awhile)

The nursing industry overall has suffered a bit in the economic downturn, but licensed practical nurses may be the sole nursing segment where jobs are hard to find, according to educators, state officials and nurses. The industries where LPNs are expected to thrive haven’t opened up yet, and LPNs continue to be layoff victims at hospitals.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Licensed practical nursing, expected to be one of the nation’s hottest job markets, is in a short-term freeze in Ohio.

Fewer jobs are available as retirement-ready LPNs remain in their jobs and state schools produce at least twice as many LPNs as there are openings, according to state officials.

Plus, changes in health care are working against LPNs — for now. As the population ages, nursing home and home health care sectors will surge and LPNs are expected to be in high demand. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Meanwhile, hospitals continue the longtime trend of cutting LPN positions in favor of other nurses. Recently, MetroHealth Medical Center cut 10 LPN jobs, shifted duties to registered nurses and said it planned to hire even more RNs.

The nursing industry overall has suffered a bit in the economic downturn, but LPNs may be the sole nursing segment where jobs are hard to find, according to educators, state officials and nurses.

“New registered nurses, instead of 15 job offers maybe they have two — that’s what it’s like today,” said Pam Waite, director of health care workforce and Northeast Ohio Nursing Initiative operations at the Center for Health Affairs in Cleveland. “For LPNs, they have to search a little bit.”

On paper, it’s hard to beat opportunities for LPNs. LPNs focus more on bedside care, perform basic tests, do clerical work and nutrition education, and when caring for a patient are supervised by a registered nurse or physician. The amount and cost of education is also less than for an RN, while average full-time pay in Ohio is as high as $43,000 a year, according to state figures.

Employment nationally and in Ohio is expected to grow 14 percent from 2006 to 2016, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor and Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Plus, roughly one-third of LPNs are close to or at retirement age.

In Ohio, that rate of projected growth is almost three times the state average, and means 1,600 LPN jobs are expected be available every year, said Lewis Horner, section chief of workforce research in the state’s Office of Workforce Development.

But, Horner said: “At the moment, since beginning of the year, it’s been very flat.”

That’s largely a result of the economy. Not only are nurses in all sectors holding on to jobs longer, but there are an influx of nurses who left for other jobs now returning to the field, said Mary Duffey, executive director of the Health Care Workforce Center at the Greater Cincinnati Health Council.

“That’s really changed the face of this,” Duffey said. “Unfortunately, for effected LPNs it means there’s not a lot of availability of positions for them.”

Unlike the case for registered nurses, nursing schools are producing plenty of LPNs. More than 3,300 LPNs graduated in the 2006-2007 school year — more than double the expected number of openings, Horner said. Some LPNs are being pressured to move into some schools’ LPN-to-RN programs, according to nursing school officials and workers at the Licensed Practical Nurse Association of Ohio.

Duffey hopes that doesn’t happen on a large scale. “I think they should hold on,” she said. “Get a position — right now maybe it’s not exactly what you’re looking for — but hold onto it and things are going to open back up again. As Baby Boomers retire people are going to need increased home health care.”

Waite thinks the LPN job market could open up even further than expected and make a comeback in the hospital setting. In 1980 LPNs made up about 10 percent of the hospital workforce, according to state figures. But by the mid-2000s the figure had dropped to about 3 percent.

Waite said that as the RN nursing shortage becomes more severe health systems will need to get every nurse they can. There are more than 135,000 RN openings nationwide, not enough faculty to produce students, and — with retirements — experts are predicting a severe and prolonged RN shortage sometimes in the next decade.

“When the nursing shortage hits us big in the next couple of years, every hospital that is not hiring LPNs now will,” she said. “People aren’t going to be picky. That’s my prediction.”