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ELKHART -- For the past three years, Deb and Scott Eriksen have gone to night classes after regular workdays. They've struggled to make their computer display virtual books, and have listened to banter from their sons about doing their homework.
Going back to school is no easy task when the last time you had a class was 25 years ago and you're working full time.
But for the Bristol couple, getting a bachelor's degree in nursing was the best way to get ahead. Regional economic development coordinators hope others will follow the Eriksens' example and help solve the area's nursing shortage through a new program.
About 305 registered nurses are employed in the five-county area covering Elkhart, St. Joseph, Fulton, Kosciusko and Marshall, but the need is about 450, according to an analysis done by the Northern Indiana Workforce Investment Board in South Bend. That's a shortage of about 145 nurses. The demand is expected to stay the same until 2012, although the shortage is predicted to go down slightly to 127 registered nurses.
Charles Pressler, director of research for the Northern Indiana Workforce Investment Board, said his organization has applied for a state grant of $3.9 million to fund a plan he hopes will reduce the shortage to about 20 or 30. The proposed plan would fund start-up costs for a master's level faculty position at Indiana University South Bend, provide more classroom space and expand clinical training opportunities.
"The master's people coming out of the program can help lower-level employees go into the registered nurse program," Pressler explained.
If the state awards the grant, the first students could enroll in a master's program in January 2007, he said.
Such a program is too late for the Eriksens who returned to college in 2003, enrolling in Goshen College's adult education nursing program. But it may prompt others to do likewise.
"I knew my career was advancing, and I needed more schooling to do my bachelor's degree," said Scott, 49, a director of cardiology at Goshen General Hospital. "We'd done the things in our lives we wanted to do. Our boys were both in high school and it was the right time to focus on our careers again."
He and Deb, 48, who was working part time as a nurse at Elkhart General Hospital. "As we get older, the shifts get a little more tiring," Deb said. "We get burnout. (With a degree) we have more opportunities besides bedside care."
Last week, the couple graduated with their bachelor's degrees, and Deb now works as an employee health coordinator at Elkhart General Hospital.
Local health care providers see the Eriksens as part of the solution to the nursing shortage, created in part by an aging work force and a lack of younger workers to fill positions. The average age of a nurse today is 48.
"We are beginning to see significant volume increases due to the baby boomers aging and poor health habits throughout the region," said Kurt Meyer, vice president of human resources and physician practices at Elkhart General Hospital. To keep up with demand, the hospital spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to recruit for rare-skills positions and reimburse employees going back to school for tuition, he said.
Jinny Longbrake, director of human resources with Memorial Health System, said in a letter to the workforce investment board in support of the grant that, contrary to other short-staffed businesses, hospitals can't close their doors or slow down patient care. "The most common way to deal with a short staffing situation is to ask your current staff to work extra hours, which can lead to staff burnout," Longbrake stated.
Adding to the problem is the lack of nursing faculty to teach college classes.
If the Northern Indiana Workforce Investment Board gets its grant, that could change.
"More students would be coming into Elkhart and going out of Elkhart," Pressler said. "Elkhart should be able to see an increase in the number of available registered nurses at ambulatory clinics and nursing homes in town."
Initially, that would probably mean better health care as more student nurses come through the pipeline and work for Elkhart General Hospital, he said. "They may graduate from Goshen College or St. Mary's," Pressler added. "We'll support nursing programs all over the place and provide instructors."
The plan also includes a revolving education account allowing 50 registered nurse students to borrow up to $2,500 each until their employers can reimburse them for tuition at the end of the semester.
Meanwhile, Goshen College also is exploring the option of starting a master's program.
"Faculty is a difficulty. That's one of the reasons some programs are not expanding," said Vicky Kirkton, chairwoman of the nursing department at Goshen College. She's putting together a master's curriculum she hopes will be approved by the college.
"Even if it's the right time to do it and there's a budget to do it, if I don't have the faculty, that's a concern," Kirkton said.
If approved, Goshen College's master's program could start in fall 2007.
Contact Gitte Laasby at firstname.lastname@example.org.