Should I stay or Should I go…? Keeping Nurses along the Gulf coast
For the past few months, the Alabama Public Radio news team has been looking into why educated and skilled workers are leaving the Gulf coast for other states. Our series is titled “Should I stay, or should I go?” Today, we focus on the nursing shortage in the Mobile area. The situation isn’t expected to resolve until 2031 at the earliest. On Alabama’s Gulf Coast, that number means recruiting nursing graduates to work in area hospitals is a top priority. Now, APR takes a look at why nurses are choosing to go elsewhere and what’s being done to keep them on the Gulf Coast.
One phrase you’re going to hear a lot during this story is travel nurses. These are temporary medical jobs, where people jump from hospital to hospital and clinic to clinic. That’s where Alabama Gulf coast is losing a lot of nurses. Even before Covid hit, 2018 Auburn nursing grad Rebekah Roe who grew up in Fairhope, knew returning to the Gulf Coast would have to wait. There were bigger cities and hospitals – some right here in the state – like Birmingham calling her name.
“I feel like being in Alabama, being within a driving distance away, feels like home basically,” said Roe. “Knowing that I can get in the car and get home in a couple hours, makes me feel like I’m already here.”
Here is where nurse recruiters would like Roe to land. On any given week, the staffing website Indeed.com shows almost 800 open nursing jobs in south Alabama. An aging workforce, not enough nursing professors to teach new students, and Covid burnout all add to the shortage. And then there’s the money. U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics ranks Alabama 49th in the nation for nursing pay. That’s a number Alabama State Nurses Association President James Hardin knows all too well.
“All of us need to work together to try to curb the loss of these nurses and keep them here,” Hardin said. “Because unfortunately, we’re not only competing, hospitals in our state and facilities in our state are not only competing with each other they’re competing with entities outside of our state that have a lot more money.”
Which is one reason, for the time being Rebekah Roe has joined the legions of nurses traveling the U.S. for a chance to make bigger bucks. And, along the way satisfy a little wanderlust in places she considers more interesting than Alabama’s Gulf Coast.
“I love being out in Colorado, hiking, fly fishing, skiing and I love California, the yoga, the beach, the surfing, I love the west,” mused Roe.
24-year-old Niya Evans tells a similar story. She grew up in Cullman and graduated from The University of South Alabama in Mobile.
“In my opinion, uh Mobile is somewhere that I think I would retire to,” she said.
Evan’s first job out of school was at UAB hospital in Birmingham which was both closer to her roots and at the time offered better starting pay for emergency department nurses. Even without the wage difference, as a young, educated adult, Evans wasn’t sold on Mobile.
“I mean there really isn’t anything there and I just think that the city needs to expand. There needs to be more things, more opportunities and like just things to do. It’s kind of like dead other than Mardi Gras, there’s nothing to do,’ said Evans.
Leaders at Mobile’s hospital systems can’t fix the Gulf Coast perception problem but they can offer enticements to stay.
“Wanted to make sure you guys were all invited. Our big recruiting even for the year. We are calling it the USA health career bowl because it is in our football stadium,” said Philip Streit. He’s an administrative director of nursing who spends a quarter of his time recruiting with Mobile’s University Hospital. That’s a level one trauma center that serves the Gulf coast.
Last month, Streit brought chicken biscuits to a class of 55 nursing students at Coastal Alabama Community College’s Fairhope campus in hopes of getting their attention and eventually their loyalty.
“We’re affiliated with the state, so our benefits are great. Our retirement, we going to give you 2 percent more than any other hospital on a dollar for dollar match. “we match up to 5 percent dollar for dollar, he said.
And Streit has more to offer than chicken biscuits. Recently hired nurses also qualify for retention bonuses up to $15,000 -- no-strings attached. There’s also higher education tuition reimbursement for employees and their families. As a nursing administrator, Kimberly Tucker shares recruiting efforts with Streit. She says the incentives build good faith.
“When you invest in the employee and their family, then that’s an investment in the community. And that just speaks to the commitment, the level of commitment that USA has to this area,” Tucker said.
Just a few blocks away at Mobile Infirmary, Ivy Singley works as the facility’s Health’s manager of employment services. She’s also competing for those same nursing graduates.
“We’ve all had to put our thinking caps, be more creative, no matter what industry you’re in and say how do we attract this new generation,” Singley observed. “How do you get them into the workforce, how do you dial them in?”