Lack of nurses remains a growing problem in the Gem State

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(KMVT/KSVT) - Despite the unemployment rate remaining at 3.8 percent for the past few months, there is still an issue with filling health care jobs.

"We have to be on our toes. We have to go after those top performers," said Tammy Hanks, Human Resource Director at Minidoka Memorial Hospital.

Between August and September, two thousand jobs were added across the Gem state. Nearly 23 percent of 5000 online job postings were classified as health care jobs that were hard-to-fill.

By volume, registered nurses (RN) took the top spot as the most hard-to-fill job.

"We desperately need RNs, LPNs and even our CNAs. That used to be an abundance are getting harder and harder to get quality people," said Hanks.

"Available RN population just in our area is incredibly low. It's forced us to have to go elsewhere to find folks," said Mark Stevens, St. Luke's Magic Valley Human and Resources Director.

In a study done on available nurses per capita in the nation, Idaho ranked last. Meanwhile, all surrounding states that employers recruit from are below the national average. But what is really causing this shortage?

"I don't know that it is for lack of teachers. In our area, we're seeing a lot of manufacturing moving in so I think that is taking a lot of our younger workforce," said Hanks.

"Nursing programs, they tend to be very full but they're not always turning out enough nursing students to help us with the recruitment effort," Stevens said.

"Often people will be attracted to states with higher population with the ability to make more income," said Jayson Lloyd, Instructional Dean for the Health and Human Services at the College of Southern Idaho.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses earn a national average of $71K. The median annual wage for a registered nurse in Idaho in 2015 was nearly $10K less at approximately $61K.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages for Registered Nurses in May 2015

Compared to surrounding states, Utah, Montana and Wyoming nurses earned an average slightly lower than Idaho. However, Washington, Nevada, and Oregon paid their RNs an average of $16-24K more than that of Idaho.

Across South Central Idaho, the annual mean wage is approximately $58,500.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages for Registered Nurses in May 2015

The College of Southern Idaho (CSI) admits 50 students to the RN program every semester. Even so, the 50 student cap is not enough to accommodate the amount of students who apply.

"Some of our seats are open for lottery once you've met the bare minimum requirements," said Lloyd. "We only have so many places we can send students to to go and actually experience nursing, the nursing field in the workplace."

Although CSI only offers an associate's nursing degree, all required coursework are squeezed into those two years. This will get students done faster, but it's not always a good thing.

"The national data is showing that the bachelor level nurses tend to have less nursing errors [due to more experience]. For safety reasons, the hospitals and other healthcare providers are pushing to staff with bachelor-prepared nurses," said Lloyd. "That process of getting nurses up and trained to the bachelor level, I think is a challenge that the state of Idaho needs to look at."

According to a study done by the Idaho Department of Labor, 40 percent of graduating nurses leave the state to work elsewhere.

To attract more nurses and keep them here, medical hospitals are creating partnerships with other employers within the state.

"This is not really known, but a lot of employers got together to sort of form a coalition. If Chobani is looking for an employee or commercial creamery is looking for an employee, does the spouse of that person have a clinical background?" stated Stevens. "Rather than each of us fighting to go find somebody, we can work more collaboratively to bring married couples into the area and we've had some luck being able to do that."

Additionally, CSI does have some partnerships and relationships with neighboring states to train Idaho residents and have them come back to work in Idaho.

"Our probably biggest issue is, as an entire state, is looking at how we can partner with our four-year schools to provide our two-year graduates opportunities to earn their bachelor's degree," said Lloyd.

Hospitals also partner with schools to offer their employees a tuition reimbursement in the event they want to further their education.

"It's amazing how many of our staff utilize that and we're very happy about that. It just gives them that one more step to get either a four-year degree or get their masters degree," said Hanks.

Aside from monetary factors, some employers look to go the extra mile to make them feel at home.

"People know that Minidoka Memorial Hospital is a great facility because it does offer the hometown feel. It's a critical access hospital, so you get that family feeling here," expressed Hanks.

Nonetheless, the demand for more nurses continues to grow with the aging population.

"I don't think it's going to get easier, but there are certainly some things we can do to, you know, make it a little simpler for ourselves," said Stevens.

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