Looking for a new career? Try nursing

  • Clinical Nurse Manager Amy Underwood stands for a portrait Friday in a nursing pod at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Florence. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Clinical Nurse Manager Amy Underwood works at her desk Feb. 10, 2017 at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Florence. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

@kate_ashworth
Published: 2/12/2017 11:46:55 PM

Sometimes a career path gets a spark at a young age. That’s exactly what happened to Amy Underwood after she watched her father battle sickness, at one point having open heart surgery.

That experience led her into the medical field, a field that has enabled her to do what she loves — taking care of those who are ill — for nearly two decades, first as a medical assistant and then as a nurse.

The 2006 Elms College graduate began her nursing career at a critical care unit in Florida, where she quickly rose through the ranks. Then last August, she jumped at the chance to return to western Massachusetts  after landing a job at Cooley Dickinson Hospital as nurse manager of the medical surgical unit. 

Underwood, like others, picked a good profession in the Valley, where health care is one of the region’s largest employers and where registered nurses are almost always in high demand. 

“We’re always looking for nurses,” said Underwood, 44.

Registered nurses are one of the most frequent sought-after occupations in the Valley, according to Massachusetts Workforce and Labor Area Review of 2015, an annual review of the state’s workforce produced by the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

The field is one of the largest, and highest paid, in the Valley, with 2,060 registered nurses employed in Franklin and Hampshire counties earning a median wage of $74,998, the report states. In Hampden County, the report lists registered nurses as the second largest occupation with 5,780 employed with a median wage of $72,695. 

The nursing profession is by far the largest of the jobs that require professional training, though the fields of cashiers, retail salespersons, office clerks, and food preparation workers all hire more workers in Hampshire and Franklin counties. These jobs, however, typically require minimum entry requirements and pay between $20,000 and $30,000 a year.

Not only are registered nurses well paid, but they are also in high demand here, just as they are in other parts of the country, where many fear a nursing shortage as baby boomers continue to age.

According to a report a year ago in the Atlantic Magazine, the U.S. has been dealing with a nursing deficit of varying degrees for decades, but today this shortage is on the cusp of becoming a crisis. Experts quoted in the story say the shortage is due to an aging population, the rising incidence of chronic disease, an aging nursing workforce, and the limited capacity of nursing schools.

While experts in the Valley don’t use the word crisis, there’s no doubt there are jobs available. A year ago, there were 169 monthly job postings in Franklin and Hampshire counties for registered nurse positions, compared to the second-most job postings at 86 a month for social and human services assistants, according to the workforce development report.

Of the state’s total job postings in 2015, health care practitioner and technical occupations group made up 12 percent, with postings for registered nurses having the largest increase, according to the report.

Hiring process

Underwood says Cooley Dickinson filters applicants for nursing positions through its human resources department to confirm they meet the position’s requirements. Underwood said she interviews about five people per open position. During interviews with applicants, Underwood said she always asks why they choose the nursing profession. Many have a story, she said.

But while there is usually an open position, the hiring process is competitive, she said.

“Nursing is always changing and always growing,” she said.

Underwood advises applicants and recent graduates looking for a job to be persistent and stay involved in projects and work activities that go beyond the requirements of a position, such as joining a quality committee in school.

“Just be passionate about what you do and let it show,” Underwood said.

Nursing candidates should also work as interns or train at hospitals, which routinely hire solid interns to join their staffs. Cooley Dickinson, for example, had 52 interns walk through its doors last semester, as well as others who attended training programs, said Lori Kenwood, director of human resources. She said about 10 to 15 percent of those students get hired.

“It’s a great pipeline for recruiting,” Kenwood said. “We want people who are committed to the highest level.”

Cooley Dickinson also recruits by hosting job fairs, which routinely draw large crowds. Kenwood said over 100 aspiring nurses attended the last hospital-sponsored fair. Those students came from the state’s four western counties as well as southern Vermont and northern Connecticut.

The hospital also works with the University of Massachusetts, Greenfield Community College, Elms College, Springfield Technical College, Holyoke Community College and Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School to provide education opportunities to students.

Aside from the nursing field, jobs in health care remain in abundance in the Valley. Baystate Health in Springfield, one of the largest heath systems in New England with more than 12,000 employees, a residency can sometimes lead to a full-time position, said Shannon Levesque, interim vice president of talent acquisition and workforce planning.

“Our residency program is robust and competitive,” Levesque said. “Last year, Baystate offered full time physician roles to approximately 20 percent of those individuals who completed their training here at Baystate Health campus.”

Additionally, Baystate Health is opening a regional clinical campus, the University of Massachusetts Medical School-Baystate, and enrollment is underway for the 2017-18 academic year. The new campus will expands the state’s only medical school into Springfield and allows UMMS to increase class size from 125 to 150 over two years. 

But not all jobs at the hospitals are in the clinical field. Levesque said the Baystate fills just under 2,000 jobs a year – 150 of those jobs are in service and trade.

Jobs are posted each hosiptal’s website as well as LinkedIn and other online resources. Baystate hosts open house events every Thursday, providing open interview time and job placement information for certain positions.

Caitlin Ashworth can be reached at cashworth@gazettenet.com.




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