Florida colleges, hospitals ramp up training to fix nursing shortage

Faced with increased staffing needs due to expansion, Sarasota Memorial Hospital is collaborating with the University of South Florida to attract and retain nurses. 

At a time when many employers are facing difficulties filling job vacancies, Sarasota Memorial is seeking to improve its work environment, help nurses and students handle increased demands, and encourage nurses to stay in the profession.

“My goal is for folks to want to come here because they see the healthy work environment. They seek the investment in their wellness, their resiliency,” says Lisa Baumgardner, SMH’s director of Education, Clinical Practice, Magnet and Research, who is leading the program for the hospital.

Through its new Excellence in Nursing During COVID-19 and Beyond program, set to begin in spring 2022, SMH and USF Health College of Nursing will be working together to help nurses reduce burnout and stress.

“We’re going to promote positive emotions with our overall goal to reduce stress, strategically reducing burnout and increasing wellbeing,” explains Dr. Rayna Letourneau, the program’s director at USF Health.

“We believe, and evidence supports, if we have healthier nurses they potentially stay in our workforce longer,” she adds.

The program includes small group coaching and a preceptorship-to-hire or mentoring program for students committed to working at SMH or its Sarasota Memorial Hospital-Venice Campus, which has opened for emergency patients.

Its new Brian D. Jellison Cancer Institute was designed to screen for, diagnose and treat a variety of cancers including gastrointestinal, breast, lung, and thyroid.

Preceptorship gives nursing students extra support from the academic and clinical sides, with the goal of hiring and retaining more nurses.

“Newly licensed RNs have a difficult time transitioning from academia to practice,” Letourneau notes. “Turnover rates of newly registered nurses are higher than any other population of nurses.”

After a six-month pilot, USF faculty is expected to continue the program for front-line SMH nurses for two years.

The Excellence in Nursing During COVID-19 and Beyond program developed through a desire to keep local nurses and patients safe. David Kotok and Christine Schlesinger donated $115,000 for the pilot after a match challenge. A $25,000 grant from Gulf Coast Community Foundation and private gifts and grants from the USF Foundation also helped fund the pilot.

Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation is raising funds for the two-year followup; it has received a $400,000 matching grant from the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation.

SMH is now listing almost 900 open jobs, higher than its usual 500.

“We have recruited nearly a thousand employees to those [two new] facilities, from across the nation, as well as from our Sarasota campus, so we are backfilling some positions on our Sarasota campus,” says Kim Savage, public information officer/public relations manager for the Sarasota Memorial Health Care System.

Other area nursing schools also are trying to help with the nursing shortage.

In search of solutions

Suncoast Technical College, which tailors training to meet student and SMH needs, has produced an extra 60 nursing assistants in the last year to help with the shortfall.

“STC has also designed and implemented a High School Nursing Program in which high school students graduate High School and also complete the Practical Nursing program at the same time,” says Scott Kennedy, STC’s Director of Nursing, Program Manager Health, and Public Service. “This is a one of a kind design in the state to the best of our knowledge. In all STC produces upwards of 250 Nurses a year for the community.”

For the first time in its history, Hillsborough Community College is planning to offer a bachelor’s degree. It is expected to begin offering a bachelor’s of science nursing completion degree in August 2022, says HCC Dean of Health Sciences Leif Penrose.

The move, which comes as USF phases out its online RN to BSN completion program, is expected to increase the numbers of USF graduate nurses entering the workforce by 24 percent.

St. Petersburg College is planning to add an evening/weekend program, projected for the fall of 2022, says Dr. Louisiana Louis, dean and professor at St. Petersburg College’s College of Nursing.

Student nurses can receive clinical training, followed by the more immersive preceptorship before graduation. Yet the shortest route to a job as a registered nurse is an associate’s degree in nursing, followed by the licensing exam.

Some clinics hire patient care technicians while they are in school, notes Clare Owen, assistant dean of St. Petersburg College’s nursing college. 

There are a number of factors behind the shortage.

“The number one limiting factor is the ability of the nursing schools to place their students at the hospital for clinical practice,” Penrose says. “It’s sort of a catch 22 for the hospitals.”

HCC already is using a mock hospital, called a simulations lab, complete with eight beds, a nursing station and computer system for training.

COVID intensifies demand

But there are a number of other reasons as well: Nurses are being lured to higher-paying areas as COVID intensifies demand, some are rethinking their decision to be nurses because of potential vaccine mandates, and Florida’s nursing students generally have performed poorly on their first attempt to pass the nursing licensure exam.

Some young nurses accept high-paying traveling gigs to pay off debts. 

“For them it’s economics. ... They’re not silly,” says Marcellyne M. Penny, HCC’s associate dean of nursing. “That does create a shortage for our local markets.”

After an initial increase in interest in nursing after COVID, HCC experienced a small dip in applications, because of concern about vaccination mandates, Penny says.

Some dropped out, others decided to wait and see whether there would be mandatory vaccines required for those working in the profession.

“We have heard from people that’s why they’ve chosen not to apply,” Penny explains. “There’s some hesitancy.”

Another issue is how many students are passing the National Council Licensure Examinations, or NCLEX, on their first try. Florida has the lowest overall ranking among the states, sources say.
“Everyone is saying the solution is more admissions, more admissions, more admissions,” Dr. Louis points out. “How do we ensure they are successful? ... It’s a national problem, but it’s even more of a problem for the state of Florida.”

Florida’s RN vacancy rate is 11 percent, higher than the nation’s average of 9.9 percent, according to a Florida Nurse Workforce report. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are projected to have above adequate levels of RNs in 2035, according to that report commissioned by the Florida Hospital Association and Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida ad produced by IHS Markit. 

Surrounding counties are expected to have less-than-adequate numbers of RNs. 
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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune